NEW YORK — You don't earn the moniker "Common Sense" for nothing. Just ask the Chicago MC who used to sign his name that way (before shortening it for legal reasons).
When he started working on the follow-up to his acclaimed — and some would say, career-saving — salvo, 2005's Be, Common reached out to his Windy City partner Kanye West to once again produce the bulk of the album (see "Common, Kanye Going For 'Glory' On Raw, Soulful New Songs"). Their Be collaborations had brought out the best in the poetic lyricist, especially with street gems like "Chi-City" and ethereal numbers like "They Say."
Problem was, West was on tour overseas when Common started digging into Finding Forever. So Com had a decision to make: wait for 'Ye and lose momentum or work without him and lose the cohesive production that had long eluded him.
Com, it turns out, smartly chose neither: Instead, he hopped on a flight and met West abroad. Common tagged along with Kanye throughout Spain, New Zealand and Australia as the two laid the foundation for what became the former's seventh album, due July 10. In addition to West, the set also features collaborations with Lily Allen and Will.I.Am.
"I never made an album this quick," Common told MTV News in Sony Music Studios last week after previewing 12 tracks for his still-in-the-works album. "I just went, 'Lemme just work on my album.' And I knew I couldn't just sit around lying back. At the end of the day, I need to put some material out there to keep my career moving forward."
While Common was recording, he was also working on two films: "American Gangster" and "Smokin' Aces" (see "Alicia Keys Kills — Literally — In Film Debut, 'Smokin' Aces' "). But the MC says he actually found it helpful to put together most of Finding Forever while shooting two movie roles. " 'Cause if you working on a movie or something ... [there is] less weight on writing the songs," he said. "At a certain point, as an artist, you go through things like, 'Man, I gotta make something better than what I did before.' [But] I didn't feel like that this time, like I got to make this better than Be. I wanted to make a better album. ... I definitely felt freer."
The result is an album that is equally assertive, if overall less aggressive, than Be. Finding Forever lends itself more to Com's gifted rhymes and storytelling than Kanye's prodigious beatmaking skills.
The fiery, Kanye-produced lead single, "The People" (featuring Dwele), drives home the point dramatically — and finds Common fitting more comfortably alongside 'Ye than in the past, when he would sometimes get lost in the producer's crate-digging. On the track, Com name-checks Kanye, spitting, "My daughter found Nemo/ I found the new Primo."
"That track is really a declaration of who I am right now," Common explained. "Sort of the voice of the people."
On "Black Maybe," the drums echo with the reverb of an old gospel song. According to Common, Kanye's choppier production on Forever is an homage to J Dilla, a longtime Common collaborator who passed last year due to complications from lupus (see "Jay Dee — Producer For Common, Busta And Tribe — Dies").
Joined by crooner Bilal on "Black Maybe," Common delivers a Gil Scott-Heron-like, spoken-word cadence on the song's hook. Though Common admitted he stretched a bit to sing on the tribal-sounding number, he assured he wasn't reaching toward more eclectic fare, which his fans haven't always appreciated him doing in the past. Throughout Forever, he avoids the experimentation that muddled the albums in the middle of his discography, and his flow stays razor-sharp.
"Sometimes you forget to just rap," Common explained when going back over a few of his past missteps. "I've been doing albums so long, so I look for new challenges. I spit so much on the first albums — and not to say I was the ultimate spitter, but I did it so much that I was looking for new things to do as a writer. I think that's where that stems from, me not really going hard on the rhymes. 'Cause I wanted to take on new subject matters and different things so I could grow and keep it interesting for me. But then you do get to the essence of what you are here for. And I love to rhyme. It does come out."
Those words couldn't ring truer than on "Southside," which Kanye produced and appears on. Here, Com and 'Ye take turns annihilating the track as they trade witty verses about their former stomping grounds. "They used to call me a Chi-town Nas," Common boasts over West's frenetic beat. "But now I'm a Chi-Town god." Later he spits: "Your career is a typo/ mine is written like a haiku."
Joints like the conceptual "Drivin' Me Wild" (featuring Lily Allen) and "Misunderstood" (which boasts a Nina Simone sample) show Common's increased range as he wraps his silver tongue around weightier topics and against production that matches his wit. On "Drivin'," he raps about a young lady who is obsessed with her body image and chases high-profile love interests. "She driving herself crazy like the astronaut lady," Common quips in the first verse.
If Be proved Common just needed a kick-snare in the right direction from Kanye, on Finding Forever, the rapper has found what he really was looking for all these years: himself. There's none of the didactic diatribes found on his past albums, nor the maniacal cross-genre attempts at richer fare. He's just sticking to beats, rhymes and life.
"[I'm] becoming more confident in who I am as a person, as a man," he said. "And I think, too, that at a certain point you just got to be like, 'Man, I'm just going to make some music that feels good.' I can't be thinking too hard about what this cat is thinking over here or what's gong on in hip-hop. I ain't even paying attention to that. I'm just making music."