Old School Reviews: Common – Can I Borrow a Dollar?

26 07 2007

by mr. travis

Common - Can I Borrow a Dollar?

Artist: Common
Album: Can I Borrow a Dollar?
Label: Relativity Records
Release Date: 1992

In the early 90’s, hip hop was split down the middle in terms of sound and style, ranging from the elegant flow of the alternative rap scene (led by such stalwarts as A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul), to the harder g-funk style of “gangsta” and hardcore rap (as performed by N.W.A., Ice-T, and Tupac). Both versions were at odds with each other, with the alternative scene focusing on social issues while building upon the foundations of jazz, whereas the gangsta scene recycled George Clinton and James Brown rhythms, while dealing with social issues in a negative manner, which inevitably lead it to becoming something of the “cock rock” of the rap world, a stigma that mainstream hip hop still is trying to shake today. Between those two extremes (which, generically would be divided upon an east coast/west coast divide) came Chicago native Common (then going by the name of Common Sense), named in 1991 as the recipient of the Source magazine’s “Unsigned Hype” award with his sing song style of rapid fire rhymes, peppered with pop culture references, paving the way for the current renaissance in hip hop.

His first record, Can I Borrow a Dollar? (Released in ’92), plays as a blueprint to the success and highs that he and producer Kanye West would explore in the later portions of his career. It’s a strong, underrated debut, playing to the strengths of Common as a rapper and a wordsmith, blending rhymes in a sing song manner over a mixture of jazz samples. In a lot of ways, hip-hop is the natural progression from jazz and when used right, the two work quite well together. Common borrows a lot from the Native Tongues Posse (A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, the Jungle Brothers, and Queen Latifah; it would later include Common) without ever pushing the jazz foundation further than what the aforementioned groups have done. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, for it allows Common room to play in someone else’s playground, sharpening his rhymes and chops. Even at this early point, there was no doubt that he would grow into an exceptional artist.

The record begins with “A Penny For My Thoughts,” behind blink and you’ll miss it samples of Damon Wayans and Eddie Murphy, Common jumps in throwing out rhymes and pop culture references from Halle Berry to Mork & Mindy, in a style that would make even the pop culture kings the Beastie Boys, stare in awe. “Take it EZ” is the highlight of the record, a fun, bouncy tune, that is overlaid with Common’s rhymes and a loose jazz beat behind it. Unfortunately, it is followed up by “Heidi Ho” which falls into the trap that so many male dominated musical forms fall into: misogyny, something that Common avoids for the most part on this debut (with the aforementioned exception). Other highlights include “Breaker 1/9” and the excellent “Soul By the Pound” with its inflective lyrics and flute lead beat.

Can I Borrow a Dollar? barely made a blip on the radar of the hip hop world when it arrived, selling low numbers, but it found itself a hit amongst the underground scene. But, it would be short-lived for two years later, Common would find himself in a “war” with Ice Cube over the song “I Used to Love H.E.R.” a condemnation of gangsta rap, that irrevocably sent Common into the mainstream (if only by name at the time, his music would still stay underground for the most part until his major label debut). To jump even further, in ten years, he would be one of the premiere MC’s in the hip hop world, no small feet considering the amount of talent within the underground and the east coast scene.. In a genre dominated by New York and California, Common put Chicago on the map with this record, which should come as no surprise, considering the jazz ties within Chicago, the city’s music scene is an obvious place for hip hop and jazz to combine and grow together. With Common, even in this debut, it’s obvious that Chicago has found the perfect artist to marry the two genres together and carry the city forward as one of the leading hotspots for hip hop.

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