Mainstream and Conscious

News & Politics

Hip-hop has a history of constantly evolving, so if you asked me five years ago where hip-hop would be today, I wouldn't have expected glitzy bling dance rap to still dominate the radio and charts. But surprisingly, they're still leaning back in da club, rollin' on dubs, drinking champagne, big pimpin', and showing girls their "oh!'s."

Yes, a lot of it sounds the same. Yes, a lot of it is garbage. And yes, some of it is actually quite good. It obviously appeals to many listeners if artists are selling millions of copies and even though it may not be very poetic or thought provoking, it's filled with rhythmic grooves to make people loosen up, move their bodies, and nod their heads.

But like many hip-hop fans, I need a little consciousness to balance with my crunk juice. Conscious rap, that tiny subgenre consisting of supposedly non-misogynistic, positive, socially and politically aware emcees (Dead Prez, Mos Def, Mr. Lif, Talib Kweli, among others), has never flowed with the currents of the mainstream. Common's latest album, "Be," however, may change that.

Common (Sense, as he used to be called) has always kept one foot in the underground and the other on the banks of the mainstream. He's one of the few conscious rap artists to gain commercial success. He released his first album "Can I Borrow a Dollar?" in 1992, but became most respected for 1994's "Resurrection," which featured the song "I Used to Love H.E.R." He also had a hit single with 2000's "The Light."

On "Be," Common teams up with fellow Chicago native Kanye West to shine light on the neglected Midwest. When you think hip-hop, you think of Snoop's sunny Cali, Jay-Z's gritty New York, and Lil' Jon's dirty South. Artists like Kanye, Common, and Twista are letting the rap world know that there's more to the Midwest than bad weather and Eminem. Song's like "Chi-City" and the album's first single, "The Corner" paint portraits of life in the artist's hometown.

Common's Afro-centric rhymes on the album are accompanied by a backdrop of jazzy, soulful beats, produced almost entirely by Kanye West. "The Corner" is a reflection of urban street life featuring The Last Poets reciting spoken word poetry, while Kanye West raps "I wish I could give you this feeling" on the chorus. And if you don't feel as if you're on a Windy City street corner among crooks, hustlers, cops, preachers, and poor and working class people trying to get by on a regular day, then you don't know how to use your imagination. While most hardcore hip-hop heads will love this song for its old-school flavored beat and Common's raw flow, it won't help him get record sales from the MTV audience.

More radio-friendly is his current hit, "Go," a song in which Common recounts moments of steamy sex, contradicting his "conscious" label. Sure, he's a conscious emcee fighting for the black struggle and all, but that doesn't mean he can't talk about hittin' them skins. Part of Common's appeal is that he can talk about sex and talk about ghetto life. And what, a man can't enjoy sex? Even Catholic priests like sex...bad joke? Sorry. At least he's not obscene about it like most rappers on the radio. The song also features one of my favorite lines on the album, "Still I got ta pause, when I think about her in them drawls."

The only problem I have with Common is a comment made on a track titled "Real People." For such an intelligent artist, he makes such an ignorant comment, which almost makes me hate writing this positive review.

"Black men walkin' with white girls on they arms / I be mad at 'em as if I know they moms / Told to go beyond the surface a person's a person / When we lessen our women our condition starts to worsen. "

Just how is a black man dating a white woman lessening the African-American "condition?" Maybe he's got his kufi on a little too tight, but as a person of color, I don't see any problems with interracial relationships. Disapproving of interracial dating is so early 90s. I am keeping in mind that the song is about "real people" and Common is...well, a real person with his own opinions and views on society. (A heated debate about Common's contradictions has been taking place on the SOHH.com message boards over a rumored comment made on New York City's Power 105.1 Star and Bucwild radio show on May 24th. According to the message board folk, Common admitted to having sex with white groupies and called it "conscious pimping." Very conscious my righteous brother.)

Despite my personal gripe, "Be" is classic Common, a resurrection of "Resurrection," with 11 solid head-nodding songs and no skits, interludes, outros or intros. The limited deluxe edition also comes with a bonus DVD making the CD a must-have for true Common fans. If you're not familiar with the artist, pick up the album.

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