In the first installment, I introduced the notion of using Stevie Wonder's albums as a lens for viewing Common's albums. In no way is it meant to be a comparision as much as it is an effort to enjoy two artists' music at one time. We've covered the first three albums, so let's pick-up at:
Like Water for Chocolate & Songs In The Key of Life
Some of the purists would debate others as to whether Like Water for Chocolate is better than Be. The older-school purists would debate whether Songs In The Key of Life is better than Innervisions. All of them would be correct because all of the albums are classics. These two in particular are the albums that make-up a chunk of arguments when fans begin bantering back and forth about the best songs.
Songs In the Key of Life has so many hits, if someone wasn't familiar with it already, they would assume that it was a greatest hits compilation. I believe this album pushed Stevie onto the icon plateau. As and Knocks Me Off My Feet stand out; yet, if forced to choose, Love's in Need of Love Today gets my vote as the most captivating song on the album. It's timeless.
Like Water For Chocolate featured JDilla backing Common with the beats. I have to confess that even as a Detroit dude, I was late on the Dilla bandwagon. But this is the album that made me a fan. DJ Premier certainly did his thing with The 6th Sense, but when the album hits with Nag Champa and Thelonious back-to-back? Things got hella real right there. Those joints are the ones that you bump in the ride when you are riding with your guys. When you are with your lady? That's the time to bump The Light.
With these albums, both artists cranked their creativity up to a higher gear. Both albums are like treasure chests of golden musical memories. It is nearly impossible to listen to either and not scrunch up your face and say "hell yeah" while listening. With Like Water for Chocolate, Common delivered his first classic album and Stevie did some Steph Curry magic by following an MVP-caliber album (Innervisions) with something even more off the chart. Arguments that these represent the high water mark for both artists could be pretty sound. No one would question the logic. However, we all know that it's impossible to remain at the mountain's peak.
Electric Circus & Journey Through The Secret Life of Plants
More than one fan listened to these albums and asked, "What in the hell?" I know I did. While some fans wondered what Stevie and Common were trying to prove, both albums proved that they weren't just entertainers, they are artists.
Authentic artist take risk. They do not conform to what's popular; instead, they innovate. With these albums, both brothers were in full innovative mode.
Truthfully, what dulled my initial experience is I approached both albums with biases. With Common, I was unfairly expecting Like Water For Chocolate part 2 and with The Secret Life of the Plants, I was expecting ... well, hell ... I don't know what I was expecting but I wasn't expecting what I heard. However, I grew to appreciate the artistic risk and with time liked both Electric Circus and The Secret Life of Plants more than I did during those initial listens.
For those who longed for the Stevie with whom they were familiar, Send One Your Love is the track for them. On an album loaded with instrumentals, the lyrics of Send One... easily reminds listeners of Stevie's stellar songwriting (in this case I'm referring to lyrics. He is also a magnificent melodic composer).
Come Close was the leading single from Electric Circus and possible moved Common from a meager crush to starring role in the dreams of many women. For the brothers, I think Aquarius serves the lyrical content we come to expect from Common. In fact, as I listened to the album more, it grew on me with each listen. While it is not my favorite Common album, I believe a lot of the resistance against it was unmerited. Like that of people who rely on soundbites for information when real knowledge comes from research. Critics of Electric Circus should revisit the album, it's formidable value may surprise them.
Be & Hotter Than July
Legendary boxer Roy Jones, Jr., succinctly summarizes the mistakes of fairweather fans when he proclaims, "Y'all Must Have Forgot!" Those who thought the musically artistic explorations of Common and Stevie meant their skills had diminished, those people must have forgot. The heaping helpings of soul contained on both these albums would certainly have helped them remember.
Hotter Than July contains one of the most frequently sung choruses in Happy Birthday. You know what I mean, that time when a handful of people gather to sing the traditional "Happy Birthday" song and the one or two who try to be hip, they sing it Stevie's way. The other people are less cool and slow to catch-on while messing up the rhythm. Then after the chorus is looped four or five times, everyone looks around like, "What do we sing next?" One person tries to keep it going but really the mood has been soured because Stevie's classic has been desecrated for cheap thrills. Man, I hate when that happens!
Nevertheless, if folks did forget about Stevie's genius, Hotter Than July does more than reminds them; it makes one of the most compelling cases in music history. Even today, nearly forty years later, one way to get the party started is to kick-off with All I Do. If you're feeling like a love relationship didn't go your way, then there is Rocket Love. Suspicious that your lover has another? Then there is Lately. Someone trying to come at you with BS, let them know I Ain't Gonna Stand For It. With this album, Stevie covers a wide terrain of emotional matters.
With Be, Common delivers a Roy Jones knockout!! I believe it is his masterpiece, slightly edging Like Water For Chocolate simply for it's concise efficiency. When those stand-up bass strings are strung on the opening track, that is the jab setting up the knockout punch that is The Corner. The lyrical artistry of The Corner made me replay it multiple times before moving forward. Then I had to GO! Truthfully, I drove the long way home so that I could listen to the cd repeatedly. I remember contemplating buying a new car and carried this cd from car to car to discern how well the sound systems were. There is a hypothetical scenario that people pose that goes like this: your house is on fire and you can only save a few cds, which do you grab? Be is one of the must-grabs for me.
No earnest listener of Be can overlook the infectious rhythm of They Say. If they try, well, here is a reminder:
Check back for Part 3