“Maybe I’m just a hopeless hip-hop romantic,” Common opines on the opening track of his new record, The Dreamer/The Believer. That track, “The Dreamer”, finds Common spilling good-natured vibes all over a crisp, No I.D.-helmed boom-bap. Wispy synths a la vintage Com tracks “The Light” and “So Far To Go” float in the ether; later, Maya Angelou stops by for a free-associative history lesson. If this all sounds a little bit by-the-book to anyone who’s ever enjoyed a Common album, you’re not too far off the mark; but in its best moments, The Dreamer/The Believer gets back to basics, and it’s full of the kind of stuff that greases the veteran rapper’s best work.

Indeed, that The Dreamer/The Believer sounds so instantly familiar is both its biggest asset and its only drawback. Common’s “Common sound” is so lived-in at this point that his attempts at expanding his sonic palette have proven particularly iffy; 2002’s spacey, acid-rock-flecked Electric Circus was a fun (if inconsistent) diversion, but the less said about 2008’s clubby Universal Mind Control (Com’s last proper album), the better. But warm, soulful, and bursting at the seams with positive vibes and rags-to-riches triumph? That’s Common’s bread and butter, and if it finds him on autopilot sporadically (Finding Forever, I’m looking at you), it’s statistically more likely that, utilizing this approach, Common will land on a classic. Dreamer may or may not be a classic – far be it from me to abuse the “C” word before the record’s had time to marinate – but it is very good.

And, all told, it’s an interesting reflection of where hip-hop is right now. Crack-rap is out; thugs are collectively laughed at; Odd Future shocked people into listening to them for about a week; in 2011, the best hip-hop of the year largely went back to the well. Albums like The Roots’ Undun, Little Brother’s solo joints, Random Axe’s self-titled; largely, these albums lack frills and pomp. A lot of that can be attributed to Kanye West; after all, this time last year, Kanye put us all on glorious sensory overload with his grandiose best-thing-ever My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, and it seems like we’re on indefinite cool-down as a result. Which has resulted in a lot of meat-and-potatoes solid hip-hop releases in 2011, and The Dreamer/The Believer slots comfortably alongside these.

Musically, Common sounds rejuvenated by resurrecting his legendary synergy with No I.D.; these are sleek, lived-in, soulful beats, slightly dusty, laced with pianos and horns, essentially hip-hop. There’s a descending piano riff on the wistful “Windows” that crystallizes its nostalgia; you can practically hear the vinyl crackle when that Impressions sample kicks in on “Love I Lost”; and that Dilla-esque outro on “The Dreamer” transports one back to the halcyon days of Like Water For Chocolate. Lyrically, Common never really kicks his knack for off-the-wall street stories into high gear (“Payback is a Grandmother”, “Testify”), but his other hallmarks are here; his irrepressibly optimistic disposition, his nostalgic riffing on his Chi-town upbringing, a pinch of good-natured hubris here, a dash of saucy sexuality there. Indeed, early in the album, a track that brings guest emcee Maya Angelou to the mic in its coda to wax rhapsodic about black progress bleeds into a street-level narrative that begins with Com reminiscing about a backseat romp with a young lady who’s “titties ain’t fake”, and it’s a bit of a 180; but it’s what Common has always done, merging the spiritual and the forward-thinking with lusty-loverman bravado, perhaps making him hip-hop’s closest analog to Mr. Gaye himself.

And, sure, Common sounds positively embarrassing on the feral “Sweet”, laying into an unnamed bitch-ass with a weird gravelly affectation, in a track that only works if you envision it as Common’s satirical retort to Fox News, who earlier this year insisted that the notoriously sunny emcee is a DMX-level gangster who had no business taking part in that poetry night at the White House (“see, I can’t even convincingly SOUND like a badass! You’ve got me all wrong!”). But the rest of The Dreamer/The Believer is reliable old Common at his best; and, by the end of the album, when a track featuring a John Legend hook that I wish I had enough space or time to tell you how captivating I find it is followed by the triumphant return of Common’s pops, who, in true classic-Common-album fashion, closes out the record with a galvanizing spoken-word soliloquy, well, it’s clear that old Common is back, and playing for keeps.

Time will tell if The Dreamer/The Believer is a classic Common album; it may not insert itself directly into the conversation the way Resurrection or Be did, but it’s a solid reminder of the kind of art that, paired with a focused and skilled producer, Common is capable of. And, finally, we can all wash our hands of that ugly Universal Mind Control business and get back to the business of nodding giddily along to a Common record; and really, isn’t that the most important thing?

Grade: A-

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