common-be.jpgThey say that hindsight is 20/20; for hip-hop, truer words were never said. With subpar music flooding the airwaves, listeners searching for once-present superiority are prematurely christening undeniably great rap albums with the ever-dangerous “classic” tag. Audacious, yes, but misguided, considering said long-players have had shorter shelf lives than Crystal Pepsi.

Perhaps the trend starter, and most guilty, was Common’s Be. A much needed upgrade from 2002’s head-scratchingly progressive Electric Circus, Be revealed his best chemistry partner, Kanye West, since the late J Dilla. A lyrical clinic throughout, the disc’s overly subdued production gains sleepiness upon further spins. Save for “The Corner” and “Chi City,” the album lacks true bite. Oddly enough, Com and ’Ye may feel the same. Finding Forever, the Chicago wordsmith’s seventh disc, bumps like Be 2.0, capturing his ’05 gem’s essence while injecting some necessary audible steroids.

The enhanced performance surfaces instantly with “Start the Show,” a chopped harp/organ blend that compliments Lonnie Lynn’s ego thrashing (“Twelve monkeys onstage, it’s hard to tell who’s the gorilla/You should have stayed as a drug dealer”). Even brawnier, “The Game,” a West-helmed boom-bap revival, bangs with relentless percussion and precise DJ Premier–turned scratches. Reinvigorated by the throwback simplicity, Common catches the holy verbal ghost and spits gospel: “I don’t kiss the ass of the masses, I’m the Black molasses/Thick, and I lasted past these rap bastards.”

Of course, Common without cultural uplift wouldn’t make much sense. Here, however, his expected brilliance is backed by tougher Kanye-tracked soul. Co-produced by West’s cousin, Devo Springsteen, the brooding “Misunderstood” poignantly details the pains of hustlers gone bad. Somberness shifts to hypnosis on the Lily Allen–assisted “Driving Me Wild,” with the college dropout’s sweeping drummer-boy bass conjuring unhealthy self-obsession parables (“They say ’Ye is, but dude was bigheaded/Rockin’ fur in the summer just so somebody would pet it”).

Never less than honest, Common has always brought his love movements to the fore. While still believable, the overall execution of his balladry here unfortunately falls short. Past softies, like 2000’s “The Light,” preserved his prose; sadly, the same can’t be said for “I Want You,” a conga bounce hindered by lazy lyrics (“I take a deep breath when the times is hard/When I reminisce over you, my God”). Equally questionable is the inclusion of the sublime yet previously released “So Far to Go,” off Dilla’s posthumous disc The Shining. New verses aside, its familiarity lingers.

When an album’s missteps still convey its overall passion, though, admiration remains. Does Finding Forever improve on the questionably classic Be? In some ways, yes. Kanye experiments more (hear his mimicking of Dilla’s off-kilter sample chopping on “Break My Heart”), while Common continually pushes boundaries by simply spitting genuinely. Truthfully, though, comparisons aren’t necessary. Once again, Common makes timeless hip-hop seem easy. —MATT BARONE
Photo: Gregory Scaffidi