Common returns to rap scene with soulful, poetic album

The rapper Common’s new album, “Black America Again,” combines a lot of elements from his former group, the Soulquarians, such as soulful beats and an alternative hip-hop style. Courtesy of Mika Väisänen via Wikimedia Commons
The rapper Common’s new album, “Black America Again,” combines a lot of elements from his former group, the Soulquarians, such as soulful beats and an alternative hip-hop style. Courtesy of Mika Väisänen via Wikimedia Commons
The rapper Common’s new album, “Black America Again,” combines a lot of elements from his former group, the Soulquarians, such as soulful beats and an alternative hip-hop style. Courtesy of Mika Väisänen via Wikimedia Commons

Easily one of my favorite hip-hop groupings has to be the Soulquarians. It wasn’t a big rap collective or anything like that, nothing like the A$AP Mobs or Wolf Gangs we have today (RIP 2011-2015). The Soulquarians were just a bunch of hip-hop and R&B artists that came together to collaborate on projects.

You’ve probably heard about some of these people before. The Soulquarians aren’t some super-underground pretentious group of coffee-house rappers. No, the Soulquarians were people like Questlove, D’Angelo, Q-Tip and the late J Dilla.

If the names aren’t ringing any bells, Questlove is the drummer for the Roots, so think Jimmy Fallon, and Q-Tip is from A Tribe Called Quest. It’s on you, though, if you don’t know who J Dilla and D’Angelo are.

One member of this group was the man himself: Common. Common’s been in the game forever and has some classics under his belt (“Be,” “Resurrection”) and some under-appreciated albums (“Like Water for Chocolate”), and he’s come through again with his “Black America Again.” Common has always been one of my favorite members of the Soulquarians because he seems to embody all the best aspects of the group.

Common has an ear for smooth, soulful and jazzy beats that complement his thoughtful lyrics. Along with this, Common might be the only successful rapper I can think of that has made his faith part of his music without either 1) sounding like Lecrae and 2) making his faith a selling point of his music (Chance and Kanye).

At the same time, I’ve always had a problem with Common: He’s awkward. Common can make great, heartfelt tracks that seem to touch my soul. He can also makes songs where he’s as stiff as a board. You can tell that Common has struggled trying to balance his faith with speaking for the streets. Some of his best tracks, however, balance these things beautifully.

Thankfully, “Black America Again” is Common at his best. This album has it all: the jazzy production, the faithful lyrics and the awkwardness is at a minimum. This is Common’s strongest project since his “Be” from 2005, and it is definitely in the running for one of my favorite projects of the year. I’ve seen a lot of comparisons to “To Pimp a Butterfly” in conversations about this album, but I can’t agree with that. Common does his own thing on this album and delivers a biting commentary of the society around us.

If you can’t tell by the title, this is another socially conscious hip-hop album, and more in the style of East Coast conscious hip-hop than West Coast styles.

“Black America Again” pulls from the tradition of acts like The Roots, Mos Def, Blackstar and Common’s older works. Common’s commentary on “Black America Again” is wordy, lyrical and thoughtful.

What this means is that this album is more verse than it is hook, and some tracks remind me of Def Jam beat poetry more than hip-hop music. And that’s fine. It’s great, actually. Common delivers some of his best tracks in ages here. It’s just that if you aren’t into that style of hip-hop, this album might not be for you.

“I pass life like I been here before,” Common states on the Old Dirty Bastard sampling track “Pyramids.” This is an apt statement for this album. This style of hip-hop isn’t anything new for Common. He’s always been “conscious,” he’s always been lyrical and he’s always been able to craft excellent songs. What’s different this time around is how heated Common is.

Common was always one of the cooler heads in the hip-hop scene. When Kanye was on TV declaring that George Bush didn’t care about Black people, Common was making songs like “It’s Your World” off of “Be.” This time around however, Common is blatant in his declarations, and he is angrier than he’s ever been.

The Stevie Wonder-featured track “Black America Again” is most indicative of this aspect of the album. The track is also one of the many high points for me. Common is depressingly hopeful as he questions the nature of freedom in America and who writes history for Black America. His rhyme scheme is also off the charts. The track really sets the bar for the rest of the album.

And how is the rest of the album? Does it live up with the bar this sets? I’d say that for the most part, it does. The only real lull in the album that I can think of is the track “Love Star,” which is the album’s poppiest cut.

If you didn’t understand English, this song still wouldn’t be that bad. It has this cool, bass-heavy production, and the hook by PJ has a nice rhythm to it. But unfortunately for the track, Common decides to get sexual—uncomfortably sexual.

Sexual lyrics have their place and are pretty popular among the Soulquarian artists, but there is a huge difference between Voodoo-era D’Angelo and what Common says on this track. It’s just cringe-worthy, and it takes me out of a track that is otherwise pretty smooth.

Other than this one lull, however, I don’t really have anything bad to say about this album. The album almost immediately picks up after “Love Star” with the track “Red Wine,” which I think is just a better version of what Common was trying to do on “Love Star.” Then there is the last stretch of the album.

The last three songs are perfect as an ending to the album and perfect for the style of music that Common is trying to craft. “Little Chicago Boy” in particular has an absolutely stellar closing by Gospel musician Tasha Cobbs. When the organ kicks in at the end of this track, I get goosebumps. Seriously, it’s one of the more surprising high moments from this album.

“Black America Again” is not an upbeat album by any stretch of the imagination, but there’s a sense of optimism that pervades throughout the tracks that I absolutely love.

The optimism has always been what’s drawn me to the Soulquarians. It’s refreshing to see someone with an optimistic outlook on what’s to come in America when there’s so much to be critical of

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *