When Common makes a puzzling or outright bad album, there's no reason for upset. For nearly 20 years now, his pattern has been clear: a misstep is always followed by a spectacular return to form. The head-scratching acid jazz experiment of "Electric Circus" (2002) blew a fuse, for instance, but "Be" (2005) was a refreshing reboot of this two-time Grammy winner's Chicago street cred. Likewise, after the clubtastic nonsense of 2008's "Universal Mind Control," Common now U-turns to reconnect with his South Side roots and deliver "The Dreamer/The Believer," his spirited and soulful ninth album.
Just as the Roots were able to duck behind their TV day job to produce one of their most meaningful records ("undun," out earlier this month), Common's ambition finds its outlet in his acting career -- now under way as co-star of the cable series "Hell of Wheels" -- leaving Lonnie Rashid Lynn free to be himself in the recording studio. He goes one better by teaming with childhood friend and producer of his first three albums No. I.D. (Dion Wilson, newly a VP at the Def Jam label). The two work together so seamlessly, the rapper opens the record with a fused introduction, "My name is Common, No I.D." -- as if the two names belong to one entity.
"Bring the beat back!" Common shouts in "The Dreamer," but the rhythms No I.D. applies to these tracks are much more supple than "Universal Mind Control's" dancefloor thumpers. We're back to the '70s bins for inspiration, quoting Curtis Mayfield's "I Loved and I Lost" on Common's "Lovin' I Lost" and building other tracks on pop (ELO's "Mr. Blue Sky" on the aspirational "Blue Sky") and even yacht rock (Kenny Loggins' "Celebrate Me Home" underneath the good-times party song "Celebrate") samples. No I.D. swaddles the tracks in static and sliding EQ, also bathing "The Dreamer" in echo as if the song were broadcasting from a pirate radio station. "No I [D] said give 'em that '80s cocaine / something raw, something pure, so I stayed in that vein," Common explains during "Sweet," acknowledging not the drug itself but the complementary smooth vocal contributions from James Fauntleroy of the Common/No I.D. project Cocaine 80s.
Given his reputation as a bohemian spiritualist, Common is mostly back on message. But he's toughened up, correcting someone in "Raw (How You Like It)": "'You Hollywood' / No, nigga, I'm Chicago" -- and he doesn't leave it at that, continuing, "So I cracked his head with a motherf---ing bottle." (Please, Common, don't hurt 'em!) He reacts against the "violent culture" in "The Believer," backed with gospel fervor by singer John Legend (and on a song that reimagines lyrics Common infamously delivered at a White House poetry slam in May that became Fox News fodder), but he's vicious in "Sweet," again poking an unnamed foe in the chest and asserting his I.D. ("Yeah, man, motherf---er, you know where I'm from"). His analysis of "Ghetto Dreams," with guest Nas, turns their cross purposes inside out, deriding the idea of having and eating one's cake ("I want a bitch that look good and cook good / Cinderella fancy but she still look hood"). Poet Maya Angelou preaches about the struggle in the opening track -- though this week she's disavowed her participation, saying she was disappointed that Common's raps on the rest of the song were so heavy with n-word slang -- and Common's dad delivers a stirring homily at the album's end ("Pops Belief"), especially poignant after the publication of Common's memoir earlier this year.