Most artists release disappointing albums at some point, but they’re usually not subjected to the kind of concerted public shaming by critics and fans that Common endured following his last release, Universal Mind Control. Proportionally, more of the album sucked than didn’t, but what made it such a universal mind-fuck was the fact that none of the many individual decisions that led to its creation made sense. It was an outright contradiction for Common, the street-level philosopher who once played the gadfly to rap’s moguls and mafiosos, to reinvent himself as a pussy-profiteering club don. And if the intent was to sell out and make hits, why ditch a solid working relationship with Kanye West to work with the Neptunes, who, by 2008, were already passé?
Common is nothing if not intelligent, and that means he, like everyone who had the misfortune to hear it, wants to forget that Universal Mind Control ever happened. Handing over production duties to No I.D., responsible for Common’s first few albums, might seem like over-correction, and inviting Maya Angelou to be mistress of ceremonies could be considered heavy-handed. There’s definitely a sense that The Dreamer/The Believer blares its agenda as flagrantly as its predecessor. But even given that the album belongs in the same line of panicky re-re-brands as New Coke/Coke Classic, as the chastened Bob Dylan laying down his electric guitar at Newport Folk, there’s just no denying that it needed to happen, and badly.
The reunion of Common and No I.D. sounds terrific, though the latter impresses more frequently. He’s a different producer in 2011 than he was in 1994: Working with Drake, Kid Cudi, and post-808s & Heartbreak Kanye, he gravitates more readily toward noirish, bass-heavy pieces than the soulful boom-bap he crafted during alternative hip-hop’s initial explosion. He inhabits the older style naturally here, and the result is arguably his best showcase to date. His most audacious feat is his successful transformation of an Electric Light Orchestra sample into earnest soul-funk on “Blue Sky,” but it’s his attentiveness to details that makes The Dreamer/The Believer so satisfying. He constructs just the right haze of twinkling piano and ambient noise for “Pop’s Belief,” a show-stopping spoken-word piece performed by Common’s father, and he stretches well outside his comfort zone in constructing the gospel-pop number “The Believer” around John Legend’s impassioned vocal. It’s a welcome surprise that the album’s production is not at all dominated by Soulquarian nostalgia, and getting to hear one of the industry’s best let his imagination run for a full album should be a strong enough draw for anyone with good taste in beats.
The MC himself doesn’t fare poorly, though he’s less careful than his partner in discerning backward-looking pastiche from forward-looking reconstruction. Sometimes he crams too many sensitive rap-dude clichés into his songs, including “Windows,” in which he describes a girl as “a beautiful rose from the concrete” (the same image serves at the title to a hilariously solemn compilation of 2Pac’s “poetry” and as one of the opening lines on Drake’s Thank Me Later). He sounds oafish trying to boast like Jay-Z on “So Sweet,” claiming to be “the greatest” and then immediately proving why he isn’t by adding, “I am the A-List for all of these great debaters.” Equally mystifying is when he compares himself to Air Jordans in that both of them are “important to the culture.” And yet on the same track, he can roll off a worthy tongue-twister like “My name’s synonymous with prominence/I am to hip-hop what Obama is to politics.” Which is, when you think about it, exactly right: I can’t think of anyone else who manages to be as inspiring while so rarely living up to his potential.
Because even when you add up all the winning moments of The Dreamer/The Believer, including the throwback lyrical stomp of “Ghetto Dreams” with Nas and the gorgeous, effortless melodies of “Cloth,” you’re still left with performances that pale in comparison to those on Like Water for Chocolate and Resurrection. I suspect Common might have that level of focus again soon, a suspicion affirmed by expertly rapped highlights like “Lovin’ I Lost,” but there’s not enough weight in this material to justify that kind of commitment anyway. That said, this is about as good as a rap album can be while still qualifying as inessential listening—and like Watch the Throne before it, its insouciant, tossed-off vibe might just be what ends up making it a kind of minor landmark in its own right.