If audiences approach Common’s new album, Finding Forever, with unfairly high expectations, the Chicago rapper has only himself to blame. Common pulled off one of the neatest tricks of his career with Be in 2005. Thanks to sympathetic production from fellow Chi-town stalwart Kanye West and a newfound sense of focus and discipline, Be was Common’s most consistent record since he first turned heads with his mid-90s conscious classic Resurrection. Even more impressively, it managed to stake out a new territory in the musical (and commercial) landscape for Common, who flourished in the positive-rap boom of the late 90s but seemed unlikely to ever shake the backpacker tag and break out to a wide audience.
It should be no surprise, then, that Finding Forever repeats the basic formula of Be’s success: lush production spearheaded by Kanye West, a concise running time mostly uncluttered by skits or filler, and a few crossover-friendly guest spots. Sadly, this time around the approach yields greatly diminished returns. Common has always had a conspicuously soft side, but the music here skips smooth and heads straight to gooey. Kanye deserves credit for continuing to step outside his sped-up-sample comfort zone, but lacking memorable hooks, most of the songs get stuck in a mire of MOR nu-soul pleasantness, all cooed background vocals and tinkly vibes.
‘Misunderstood’ dives into cliché with an extended Nina Simone sample, cashing in on the hook without bothering to build a new song around it. ‘I Want You’ suggests previously unknown reasons to hate will.i.am, and the Lily Allen collaboration ‘Drivin’ Me Wild’ is a future easy-listening radio staple. DJ Premier makes a welcome appearance scratching on ‘The Game’, but his presence only serves to underline Common’s lapse into self-parody, never more so than when he raps, “My daughter found Nemo/I found the new Primo.” (Perhaps he’s courting the middle-aged suburban mother set?) Common may have found a new niche, but it is a place where few of his long-time fans will care to join him.