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Common – ‘Finding Forever’ (Album Review):

Like Timbaland, it all started going wrong for Kanye West when he decided to step up from producing to forge a solo career and appearing in all of his mates’ music videos – Snoop Dogg is also guilty of this hip hop whore behaviour. Don’t get me wrong, West has a superfluous ear for splicing old soul songs into great samples (what I wouldn’t give to delve into the dude’s record collection…), and is also a highly understated beatmaker, as the thundering intro to ‘Gold Digger’ will testify. West has the natural knack of taking Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, Gil Scott-Heron and even – heaven forbid – Michael Bolton, and make something refreshingly new out of it. In fact, as good as West’s 2 albums are, his production credits on Jay-Z’s 2001 album ‘The Blueprint’, John Legend’s debut album ‘Get Lifted’ and Common’s 2005 release ‘Be’ should – by rights – overshadow his own solo output. I’d go as far as to say that the 4-times Grammy-nominated ‘Be’ is not only one of my favourite hip hop albums of all time (and, believe me, that’s saying something), but also easily one of the best hip hop albums released in the last decade or so (and, believe me, that’s not saying much).

See, the thing is, hip hop has become a bit of a joke genre over the last few years, be it Eminem’s unfortunate downhill spiral into forever dissing his Mum or doting on his daughter, or 50 Cent’s laughable bling output. Message to Fiddy: we know you have more money, cars, jewellery, mansions and hot bitches than us “normal” people. You’re better than us, we get it. Now change the subject, if you can. It’s this unfortunate bling “mo money, mo shit material” phenomena (not all released from Slim Shady or Interscope Records by the way) that is cheapening hip hop at the moment, and it’s albums like Common’s previous release ‘Be’ that help to combat this. It’s such a joyous record, with positive vibes and no filler. Even the cover artwork of the album, of a happily grinning Common, contrasts to the macho posturing that the likes of G-Unit continually foist upon the record-buying public. So now, in 2007, Common releases ‘Finding Forever’ and expectations are obviously high; ‘Be’ was highly favoured by critics and fans alike, winning a slew of new fans and even being compared to Marvin Gaye’s 1971 classic ‘What’s Going On’.

So it’s hard to NOT compare this album to ‘Be’. For instance, even the cover artwork for ‘Finding Forever’ finds Common dressed in some kind of robe, looking all prophet-like and regal. It’s a serious Common, as opposed to the gleeful Common. ‘Finding Forever’ is a confusing album. For instance, the first track on ‘Be’ is easily one of Common’s greatest tracks (THAT double-bass, THAT Albert Jones string sample, THAT tinkling piano and xylophone riff), because it sounds so full of elation and genuinely carefree. In fact, the first word uttered on the record is a bright and breezy Common proclaiming ‘Yes!’. It’s this positivity that sadly contrasts to the beginning of ‘Finding Forever’. Due to hip hop’s strange penchant for needless minute-long intro’s (and don’t even get me started on all those ‘hilarious’ and ‘worthwhile’ skits you find on hip hop albums nowadays…), ‘Finding Forever’ starts with a minute of melancholy harp and random ambience that wouldn’t sounds amiss on a Zero 7 B-side. It’s an unsettling start, because it’s such a waste of a track; it does nothing and it goes nowhere.

Even more maddening is the fact that it’s followed by the Kanye West-produced ‘Start The Show’. Here, West not only intones the chorus’ hook, but also speaks the first words on the album – an honour usually left for, well, Common really, seeing as it’s his album and all. The cheek! It’s a bit tired in all honesty, and it’s with considerable relief that it segues into standout track (and lead single) ‘The People’, with its repeated emphasis on ‘Louder! Louder! Louder!’ and Common’s initial dedication of ‘Yeah, this is for the people’. Even the video – seeing Common walking the streets and meeting the people he speaks of – outlines a rap star not forgetting his roots. Common is clearly far removed from Fiddy’s idiotic “I’m better than you guys!” ramblings.

Track 4, ‘Drivin’ Me Wild’, is another fantastic track, especially the catchy Lily Allen-sung chorus: ‘It’s this thing now / Drivin’ Me Wild / I gotta see what’s up / Before it gets me down’. It’s unashamedly hypnotic. Even the chorus’ end (‘Love’s not a mystery / it’s everything’) focuses on this all-encapsulating feeling of including everyone because, after all, we – the people – will always fall in and out of love because, you knows it, it’s everything. Next up we have the Will.I.Am-produced ‘I Want You’, with said producer sounding suspiciously like John Legend. Track 6, ‘Southside’, is again produced by and features Kanye West, and again seems a bit stale and tired. And this is the unfortunate thing about this album. Whilst most reviews show ‘Finding Forever’ as Common at the top of his game, I just seem to hear a messy and confused album, because it’s so patchy; as if each great track is followed by a mediocre one, and then another great one and so on. It’s pretty off-putting. Whilst ‘Be’ (and even Common’s early albums ‘Like Water For Chocolate’ and ‘Resurrection’ spring to mind) are highly rated albums, ‘Finding Forever’ is pretty hit-and-miss.

Track 7, ‘The Game’, is rumoured to be a future single (the video, of Common in a Boxing Club, is rife on Youtube), but feels more like filler than something playable on commercial radio, which is a shame. Three more adequate tracks fly by before we’re hit by another album standout, the darkly intense ‘Misunderstood’, complete with Nina Simone sample. Like ‘Be’, the final track (‘Forever Begins’) is another 7-minute looooooong number and, due to the album’s propensity for nothing new or exciting, it feels like an anti-climax. The UK release of the album includes an extra bonus track (‘Play Your Cards Right’) but, seeing as it’s already been made available on the ‘Smokin’ Aces’ soundtrack album, the word “bonus” isn’t really called for. So, to conclude, ‘Finding Forever’ is a wasted opportunity of an album. It’s not a disaster of epic proportions or anything, but it’s also not the classic that we hoped for either.
By J. M. Ross