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Here's the Common thread

The Chicago rapper aims for start-to-finish flow on `Finding Forever.' With Kanye West again onboard, he gets close.

July 29, 2007|Oliver Wang | Special to The Times

HIP-HOP albums are not known for their brevity, especially when 20-plus-song CDs are almost routine. But on Common's new "Finding Forever," the Chicago rapper revisits the economy of his highly regarded "Be" (2005) with a collection that clocks in at barely 50 minutes. The two albums make a convincing argument that sometimes less is more.

Common credits his inspiration to albums outside of hip-hop. "I always felt that great albums are an experience," he explains. "From the beginning to the end, you are on a ride ... whether it's [Marvin Gaye's] 'What's Going On' or Bob Marley's 'Exodus' or John Lennon's 'Imagine.' "

That expansive -- and ambitious -- comparison manifests in the album's sonic texture and structure. Extended musical interludes grow organically from one track into the next, creating a cohesive narrative of sorts. Says Common: "I'd like to have a story told through music ... that has a connection and an evolution and a flow."

The risk lies in the fact that a chain of songs is only as strong as its proverbial weakest link. Common has a penchant for relationship-themed songs, but "Finding Forever" has three, skewing the balance, and one of them, "I Want You," feels like an unnecessary retread of older hits such as "The Light" and "Come Close."

"At one point, I felt like maybe I have too many love songs," Common says. "Well, if I enjoy these songs, then I'm hoping the audience will enjoy them."

This stumble aside, the rest of "Finding Forever" is very strong -- song for song, it rivals if not surpasses "Be."

The partnership between Common and fellow Chicagoan Kanye West is especially crucial, as rapper-producer West directs most of the music. Two of the album's strongest songs -- the subtly, sublimely dense "Start the Show" and the raucous Chi-town anthem "Southside" -- benefit from their direct collaboration as West pushes Common to keep pace with clever wordplay and witty braggadocio. "There's something about him that's not too gangsta, not too preppy.... You just feel he's being himself," Common says of his partner. "I strive for that also."

"Finding Forever's" catchiest song -- and the next single -- is a humorous morality tale: "Drivin' Me Crazy," featuring English singer Lily Allen. West, sampling from an obscure New Rotary Connection song, creates a frenetic, piano-driven track while Allen's chorus adds a contrasting layer of sweet harmony.

"That song began with Kanye making this beat.... We were in New Zealand," Common recalls. "We worked on a chorus idea, and he thought maybe Lily Allen would sound good. She came into the studio, opened her laptop up, took her shoes off, lit a cigarette, went in there and had a great time."

On a more somber note, the melancholy "So Far to Go" (featuring D'Angelo) remakes a song Common recorded with the late producer -- and his former L.A. housemate -- J Dilla. The original version appeared on Dilla's posthumous 2006 album, "The Shining," and in remaking the song with the same instrumental track, Common was trying to honor that collaboration. "I wanted it to be a song that we made together, not like something he made and I just went and got one of his beats," he says. "I felt it was only right."

"Finding Forever's" grand goal, and the idea behind its title, is to be a piece of art that will survive into posterity. It's too early to gauge its success, but at least Common's not lacking for ambition: "It was finding that place musically and artistically and as an activist ... that will really resonate throughout generations."

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Common

"Finding Forever" (Geffen)

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Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent). The albums are already released unless otherwise noted.

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