“Music can be forever if you make it from the heart, if you make it from the soul and it’s good,” said Common as he was working with producer Kanye West to craft his seventh studio album, Finding Forever. “And I look at music like Bob Marley’s or Marvin Gaye’s or Stevie Wonder’s or A Tribe Called Quest’s, that’s forever music. And I’m continuing on the quest to make forever music.”
Common’s journey up until that point had been anything but common. Ten years ago on July 31st, 2007, he was already a 15-year vet of the Hip Hop industry and coming off of his critically acclaimed “Be” album, which Kanye had also produced.
“Be” was a musical and commercial smash, a lean, vibrant and tight production with beats and rhymes that announced the duo as a significant force to be reckoned with in Hip Hop when their superpowers coalesced.
It let folks know that these cats could attain mainstream success and recognition without sacrificing that raw Chicago hood essence that existed within their core musical consciousness.
Kanye’s beats reeked of controlled belligerence, while Common’s smooth lyrical gymnastics were embedded with power and grace.
Common – Testify
Music video by Common performing Testify. (C) 2005 Geffen Records
Its funky soulfulness was on full display in the remarkable cut Testify, which required a number or rewinds because the beat was so hypnotic, brutal and lush that the lyrics almost seemed like an afterthought.
But once you grasped the sensational instrumental flexing of Kanye’s production muscle, the storytelling kicks you in the dome like Jon Jones asserting his MMA supremacy.
Folks wondered if the duo would be able to top what they’d done on “Be”, but their next project proved that they had plenty left in the chamber.
“For me, Finding Forever means being able to exist through music and art forever,” Common told MTV as he stood backstage during a show with the Roots at Radio City Music Hall more than a year prior to the album’s release. “Finding a place where I can make something that will be here and be timeless, transcend age barriers and color barriers. I always wanted to do that with my music, but this is just making a statement of seeking that place of forever music.
“And now with the death of J Dilla and other things, you start thinking about forever lasting for real through music,” he continued. “Jay Dee will last forever through his music and hopefully generations down the line will know about Common through his music. And it’s also saying: I been doing this for a nice period of time, so I’m trying to find the place where I can keep existing in the game and make music I love.”
And goodness gracious Gawd’a’mighty did they do Dilla justice in creating a timeless gem that will forever exist in the penthouse of Hip Hop’s greatest artwork.
From the opening cut, The People, Common comes blazing out the gate, letting you know that you are about to embark on a serious, elevating musical journey.
“This is street radio for unsung heroes
Ridin’ in the Regal, tryin’ to stay legal
My daughter found Nemo, I found the new Primo
Yeah, you know how we do, we do it for the people
And the struggle of the brothas and the folks
With lovers under dope, experiments to discover hopes
Scuffle for notes, the rougher I wrote, times was harder
Went from a rock starter to the voice of a martyr
Common – The People
Music video by Common performing The People. (C) 2007 Geffen Records
Why white folk focus on dogs and yoga
While people on the low end try to ball and get over
Lyrics are like liquor for the fallen soldiers
From the bounce to the ounce, it’s all our culture
Everyday, we hustlin’, tryna get them custom rims
Law, we ain’t trustin’ them, thick broads, we lustin’ ’em
Sick and tired of punchin’ in, I look on the bus at ’em!
When I see them struggling, I think how I’m touchin’ ’em…The people!”
West freaked it with the samples from Brian Jackson and Gil Scott-Heron’s We Almost Lost Detroit, and Long Red’s Mountain, whose opening salvo is known more widely thanks to its significance as the open to Eric B. is President.
Drivin’ Me Wild, featuring British singer Lily Allen, spoke to those shallow folks obsessed with clothes, appearances and society’s so-called ideal body types through the lens of a woman chasing celebs for coupes, who kicked her pumps off not realizing that she was just a jump-off, “…Doing all she can for a man and a baby, driving herself crazy like the astronaut lady.” It spoke to dudes drinking Chandon just because Big said it, and people losing themselves while chasing fame, living for material dreams that mean nothing in the grand scheme of things.
I Want You, produced by will.i.am, is a cut that every cat can relate to, about the one who got away.
Common – I Want You
Music video by Common performing I Want You. (C) 2007 Geffen Records
“We were like 2 birds that were able to fly
I try to pick the right words to say to the sky
Some days I would try but wasn’t able to cry
I never been good at saying goodbye
I take a deep breath when the times is hard
When I reminisce over you, my God
I spent many years tryna to be the heartthrob
I guess it’s only right that I got my heart robbed…”
Common breaks it down, and you can sense the pain with each refrain of,” ’cause I want you, ’cause I want you, I want you, I want you!”
Southside, with Kanye joining in on vocals, feels aesthetically like a slightly sped up version of Boogie Down Productions’ Dope Beat. The song won a Grammy for the Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group.
When Kanye says, “Thinking back to the projects, and they way they tore ’em all up, like when I do a project, and come back and tear the mall up,” he’s going deeper than most people realize in comparing the destruction of black neighborhoods to how he locks down the mall when flush with cash.
Common does the same types of deep dives with lines like, “If Rap was Harlem, I be James Baldwin,” and “The broads, the cars, the half moon, the stars, I’m like Jeff Fort the way I get behind bars.”
The Game, with DJ Premier’s scratching wizardry one the turntables, was an homage to ’90s era Hip Hop beats and flow, along with titans like Big Daddy Kane, and a reminder that he ain’t gassed by fame and will always be true to from whence he came. And, oh yeah, that his brainstorm is like he stay in the rain!!!
“Raised by game where niggas ain’t phased by fame
Come to the crib, get banged, they take your chain.
Stay in your lane, Brokeback ain’t the way of the game
My brainstorm is like I stay in the rain
My favorite was Kane, now I’m dope with weight in the game
You was hot but can’t stay in the flame
Ghetto pain and windows crack, the fist is like a symbol for black
Can tell the real by how the real interact
In the middle of whack my soul sticks to a track…”
Common – Black Maybe (Feat. Bilal)
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U, Black Maybe is Common’s inner discourse with himself about the Black struggle in the hood, coming from a place that he obviously loves but questions vociferously. He wants to come around, but knows that some brothers just want to bring him down.
He says, “The same streets that raised you can age you, With other black birds that’s caged too. A rage up in Harlem and the Southside. Brothers is starving with their mouth wide open. Floating across state, got the workout plans so they can move weight, the fate of the black man, woman, and child: maybe…”
For anyone who is familiar with Chicago hoops legend Ben Wilson, the second verse still conjures up a pervasive sadness and raw emotions.
“…Neither the ghetto nor defenders could trap him
The stones had his back and they’d pat him
He was living a life they couldn’t fathom
Colleges getting at him with all type of scholarships
Even if he went, they knew he’d leave college quick
For the pros, the one from the hood that was chose
The black rose that grew in the jungle
A humble stud, still had rumble in his blood
Women all around, givin’ him trouble love
You know the love when you up, they down
Cause you rock in ball, they around
Your win is their crown
Dudes in the circle he known for years
Shared beers and cheers but chose different careers
When paper and fame came they ain’t know how to react
Them same studs shot him in the back
Now that’s black…maybe…”
The J Dilla-produced So far To Go, to me, is one of Hip Hop’s most monumental songs, a mantra I repeat to myself on a daily basis. If you want to see me lose my everlasting mind at a party, you’ll do so when the DJ drops this joint at high volumes.
Common (Ft. D’Angelo) – “So Far To Go” (Prod. By J Dilla)
God Is Love. Peace. (Version 2)
The production is a reminder of how prolific and wonderfully brilliant Dilla was, and a sad reminder of what we lost when he transitioned into the spiritual essence. The re-imagining and use of The Isley Brothers sample Don’t Say Goodnight is awe-inspiring from a creative standpoint, and tear-inducing when reflecting on the fact that, as one of the final songs that he produced before dying at the age of 32, he was indeed saying goodnight.
D’Angelo blasts it off with, “I wanna get closer, to you baby!”, and every time I listen to this song, I just want to get closer and closer to it. Common’s lyrics are directed toward the woman he’s in love with, a lady who’s obviously a gift from the heavens with her inner beauty and rare soul.
But he’s also telling all of us that in life, we’ve come so far, overcome so many obstacles by just being here, and that it’s only the beginning because we have so far to go.
Kanye freaks the sample of George Duke’s Someday on Break My Heart, and Common waxes rhapsodic about how love can be sometimes be a cross to bear.
Misunderstood is a haunting, exceptional piece that merges beat-making and storytelling at its apex.
Common – Misunderstood
Off The Finding Forever Album. Make sure to download this track on itunes or Amazon!!!
The Nina Simone sample in the intro portends the darkness to come, and the lyrical portraits that emerge – about the brother shot on the corner and the former Howard student who begins stripping when her dreams of stardom disappear, only to die of a drug overdose – are harrowing reminders that, as Common says, “Some dreams get lost, never to be found again…”
The album signs off with Forever Begins, a reminder to make the best of our time here, because we’re livin’, and then we’re gone.
But one thing that won’t be gone is Finding Forever, because ten years after its release, we still celebrate its power, imagery, lyricism and layers as one of Hip Hop’s dopest accomplishments.