New Music Tuesdays: Common – Finding Forever

31 07 2007

by mr. travis

Common - Finding Forever

Artist: Common
Album: Finding Forever
Label: Geffen
Release Date: July 31, 2007

It’s a difficult thing to follow up an album like 2005’s Be, Common’s best record. Most of that album’s success came from Common himself, he had been building to that moment ever since his debut in 1992 as the young Common Sense, the blueprint of his jazz/rap hybrid growing and expanding in the next fifteen years with seven releases. But, the other portion of the success of Be came from the production of Kanye West who took the psychedelic production of Jay Dee (aka J Dilla) and added a bit of 70’s inspired soul and funk to the proceedings leading to an outright masterpiece. Since the album’s released, much has happened: Kanye West has become an outspoken superstar, his words (no matter how right on they are) sometimes overshadowing the music he creates (which is usually quite outstanding on its own merits). While West was reinventing the hip hop wheel, producer Jay Dee sadly succumbed to his own failing health, passing away in early 2006 due to cardiac arrest. His death overwhelms Finding Forever, which finds Kanye West producing the album as if he were channeling Dee’s soul, while Common himself raps in a subdued manner, still riding high on confidence, but the death of his friend weighs heavily on the proceedings.

Thus, is Finding Forever, Common’s seventh and heaviest album, a dark record that Common and West have both said is their quest to “live forever.” It’s a fine record, yet, it’s the first that really seems to rest on its laurels, instead of pushing forward as all of Common’s previous releases have. This isn’t a bad thing necessarily, it allows for the duo of Common & Kanye West to further explore the sound of Be, but it has the side effect of being instantly compared to the previous release, and on that merit, it can’t compare.

The problem with the record isn’t necessarily with Common, but with West. His production work is fine, though it’s an obvious homage to Dee, relying on his bag of tricks instead of the very things that made Be and his own records a success. But, it’s his guest appearances that threaten to derail the record, for they are so out of place, it feels as if Kanye is rapping on a different record altogether. It begins with the first track “Start the Show”, where West booms over the proceedings like a Godlike MC, demanding Common to . . . “start the show.” But, when Common steps in, he’s not a rapping ego as West is, he’s calm, subdued, and confident: Exactly as one would expect him to be. And that flow continues into the first single, “The People” an excellent number that throws in everything that Common has ever been. “Keepin’ my eyes on the people and the prize,” he says, his flow interweaving smoothly with the grab bag of soul, funk, and jazz. It’s a great number and one of the best of the record, beginning a string of tracks that run smoothly, making the appearance of West on the first track a distant memory. But, then he reappears on the track “Southside,” the centerpiece of the album.

Until this point, the record had recovered from the first song, building a loose concept record about love, loss, grief, and the healing process. “Southside,” a song which began as a number about the Chicago Bears and their Super Bowl appearance (on Kanye West’s MySpace no less), is too boisterous, too all over the place. West, whose ego works on his own records, needs to learn subtlety as a rapper, to learn that one can still be confident without being loud, the side effect on this record being that he completely interrupts what came before. It’s unfortunate, for something was building, but once this song comes through, all that is gone.

The record recovers right away with “The Game,” but it feels as if someone hit the reset button on the album. This could theoretically work on vinyl, with “Southside” being the beginning of Side II, but on CD the taste of “Southside” segues into “The Game” taking away from the brilliance of the track. By the time the last track appears (the excellent “Forever Begins”) the listener has regained their footing only to see the album end. Which is a shame, for there is a lot of great material here, finding Common on his game and Kanye West at his best as a producer. But, the rapping by West is the first chink in his armor, and along with his first single for his upcoming record, “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” there is plenty of reason to wonder if the golden boy of hip hop has lost his step.

All issues with West aside, this is for the most part, Common’s show, with very little in the way of special guests (those that are here are used sparingly). But, it’s not as good as Be and suffers from an interesting problem of his body of work: Every other record in Common’s catalogue is a knock out, while the proceeding one tends to be a bit lackluster, mostly due to the experimenting that would later be perfected on the later release. This is no exception, suffering from being a slighter release without the experimentation. But, it is understandable, this is Common’s ode to a fallen friend, a record about pain and the possibility of living forever based on the art you create. And on that level it works.

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