In the first few years of the century, the progressive hip-hop that emerged in the wake of ‘90s gangsta rap was overshadowed by the Dirrty South and, until 2005’s inspired Be, Common’s place in the world seemed to be amounting to nothing more than veggie-burger poster-boy. Be teamed Common with producer du décennie Kanye West and the results maximized both artists’ strengths and put Common back on track following the mixed reception of his Electric Circus. Common’s follow-up, Finding Forever, attempts to maintain that success (West is once again on board for nine songs), but with mixed results. While West has turned toward the future for his upcoming solo disc, he dips back into the vaults for Common’s album and, while the formula hasn’t completely outstayed its welcome, it’s becoming unclear whether West is capable of making a track not based around a sample of someone’s else work.
“Drivin’ Me Wild” makes good use of Lily Allen as a hook girl, but the track, like too many on the album, is marred by the increasingly popular habit of trying to keep the “hip” in hip-hop by writing lyrics littered with blog and tabloid culture references (celebrity romances and breakups, Lance Bass, etc.), while the abrasiveness of the whose-dick-is-bigger rhymes traded by Common and West on “Southside” is exceeded only by the song’s grating hook. And Common’s understanding of privilege in this country is reductive at best. He seems to think the likes of Paris Hilton and the spoiled rich kids on MTV’s reprehensible Sweet Sixteen represent the majority of young, white America: “White folks focus on dogs and yoga,” he says on “The People.”
The clean version of Finding Forever censors the word “ho” but not the word “pimp” on “Start the Show.” Now, if the Great Nappy-Headed Ho Crisis of 2007 taught us anything, it’s that there can’t be a ho without a pimp, but in the aftermath of the Don Imus controversy, no one has bothered to identify who the pimps really are. It’s the difference between hip-hop that claims to reflect a way of life and one that attempts to understand it. Nina Simone is beginning to rival Shirley Bassey as the most gratuitously appropriated woman in pop culture today, but when Common and producer Devo Springsteen sample Simone’s “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” for the socially-conscious track “Misunderstood,” they do so with respect for the original song and what she stood for as an artist; Simone’s words are spliced in such a way that they’re given even more weight, as opposed to, say, Timbaland’s ego-fueled interpolation of “Sinner Man” on his track “Oh Timbaland.” In that sense, Finding Forever is something to be admired, even if it is uneven.