I imagine that there is a magical threshold for recording artist to reach. Some would say that threshold is a certain number of released albums. Some would say that a certain number of years recording or touring. Some would say that the popularity of one or a number of the artists' songs would push them to that threshold. While it would be hard to agree on the tangible dimensions of such a threshold, I believe we can agree that there is a point when an artist is widely known and / or accepted for their art.
Stevie Wonder has long passed that threshold.
Common, when factoring the relative youth of Hip Hop culture, has also reached that threshold.
I believe an attribute of having done so is when committed fans purchase the music despite what critics say. I believe another attribute is when fans who probably were not born when the artist first began, get exposed to the music and begin swearing by it with the fervor of a born-again Christian. I think another attribute is when the artists' become known by more than their original artistic contributions. With those attributes in mind, then I propose that Common has reached a threshold that Stevie Wonder crossed in the mid 70s.
If this is your first time, we have been viewing Common's music through the lens of Stevie Wonder's albums. In Part One, we covered Common's first three albums as well as three albums from the early phase of Stevie Wonder's classic period. Part Two covered two of both artists' most critically acclaimed albums and Part Three covers two albums that in retrospect could be considered post-pinnacle productions. Which brings us to the conclusion of this series and a look at two of their latter or most recent albums.
The Dreamer / The Believer & Jungle Fever
With these albums, even the novice listener can hear facets from both artist that are indicative of their genius. Yet, I would wager that of those who purchased these albums, more than half of those purchases were driven by name recognition or a vote of confidence developed from earlier works. In this case, Stevie has some advantages with the most notable being his extensive body of remarkable work. Another advantage is Jungle Fever album was a soundtrack for a popular movie of the same name. When I was a child, my father told me that songs take on a greater meaning when there is a memory attached to them. I remember Jungle Fever as a memorably powerful movie. This very good album by Stevie Wonder is bolstered by the success of Spike Lee's movie. Perhaps it is the ingenuity of cross-marketing or something else. Whatever it was, it is safe to say the soundtrack helped the movie and the movie helped the soundtrack.
I may be the only fan or perhaps one of a handful who upon seeing the cover of The Dreamer / The Believer thought of the effects of the Can You Feel It? music video by the The Jacksons (or possibly I was just vibing to The Jacksons on that same day). Nevertheless, as usual, Common brings it lyrically. My favorite track on the album was Gold (seriously, you should listen to this joint while reading the lyrics - Common does his thing). Gold has evolved into one of my all-time favorite Common tracks if only for the fact that it embodies the notion of where-I-am-looking-back-on-where-I've-been. Liking Gold so much compromised my listening experience with the rest of the album. To extend the Jungle Fever parallels, Gold was as memorable as These Three Words. I can take that parallel a step further and say Ghetto Dreams was as memorable as Jungle Fever (the song). I'm convinced that snapshots from the Ghetto Dreams video are taken from some of the decayed areas of my hometown. Those dispiriting snapshots are offset by the beautiful sister in the video, plus the lyrics from Nas and Common.
Nobody's Smiling & Conversation Peace
Both of these albums brought about my worst attribute as a music fan - being so enraptured with one song that I seldom listen to rest of the album. The first time I was diagnosed with this affliction was with Goapele's Even Closer when Closer became one of my all-time favorite songs (of any genre). The next time it flared-up was with The Roots' The Tipping Point and the opening song, Star / Pointro. In those instances as with Nobody's Smiling and Conversation Peace, I have heard all of the songs on the album at least once. Yet, both albums contains one standout track that encapsulates my fondest memories of the album.
For Your Love exemplifies some of the components that makes Stevie's music magical. Is the song romantic or inspirational? Do you use it to convey to your innermost sentiments to your significant other? Or do you use it during moments of reflective introspection? For Your Love can cover those emotions and possibly others. The transcendence of Stevie's music is perhaps what makes him so legendary. His songs cannot be limited to one category or mood.
As a consumer who prefers to purchase cds and then upload my favorite tracks onto my iPod, the Nobody's Smiling cd is still in my car awaiting the road trip when I listen with focused attention to it in its' entirety. I look forward to giving this cd its full due. In doing so, I aim to avoid my dreaded "only-hearing-my-favorite-track" ailment. The opening track, The Neighborhood, makes it very hard to counter that ailment. The opening bars sung by James Fauntleroy, while not quite as potent, reminded me of Cee-Lo's Free on Goode Mob's Soul Food and that's a fantastic way to start an album! Then No I.D. (the producer) mixes in Curtis Mayfield's Other Side of Town and I was totally blown. Other Side of Town is one song on Mayfield's amazing Curtis album, an album that I can sing along and play "air instruments" with on every song. I often refer to my father's influence on my musical tastes, but my love for Curtis comes directly from my mother. My mom is pretty reserved but when Move On Up plays, she gets to shimmying her shoulders and grinning from ear-to-ear. All of those sentiments surfaced when I heard No I.D.'s sample choice for The Neighborhood and the good times didn't stop there!
As he consistently does, Common brings it lyrically. Sometime ago, my good friend, Kofi, made a distinction between a "hungry" Common and regular Common. As I understood Kofi, The B**** In You is an example of the hungry Common and Blue Sky is an example of regular Common. I can't say with 100% accuracy if those were Kofi's sentiments but the distinction stuck with me. I should also add that making distinctions with Common's music is akin to saying you prefer Cadillac CTS-V over the CTS - either way, with a Cadillac, you're winning. Yet to the point about "hungry" Common, on The Neighborhood, we hear the full throttle of Common's CTS-V engine. Also on The Neighborhood, we (by that I'm assuming older Hip Hop fans) are introduced to Lil' Herb. I spent sometime hanging with a twenty year-old who attends college in Chicago and he had a whole collection of Lil' Herb songs. It was hard for me to follow all the songs but that maybe has more to do with my age than to do with Herb's skills. In addition to vibing to Herb's bars, I also like Vince Staples lines in Kingdom.
One thing that I hope Hip Hop culture can avoid is the clash between generations. By that I mean, imagine the potency of promise that could have been had there been more synergy between the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Power Movement. Instead of being fractioned into the old vs. the young, both movements could have benefitted tremendously from the other. In contemporary Hip Hop culture, there is a tendency for some of the older fans to talk down on the music created by younger artists. Truth be told, the music of younger artist reflects their reality. Some of the younger artists are talented and some are making mindless music; the same of which could be said of Hip Hop artists and rappers of my generation. By introducing Lil' Herb and VInce Staples to the older generation, I believe Common is acting as a generational ambassador. Common is an established artist and uses his platform for some younger cats to "get-on." I have tremendous respect for that.
So here we are, we have taken a look at Common's music via the lens of Stevie Wonder's albums. We have charted Common's evolution from his first album which shortly followed his feature in the Unsigned Hype section of The Source magazine to his latest album where in addition to making wonderful music, he bridges generations within our culture. While I like some Common albums more than others, the truth is that an analysis such as these blogs proves that Common is an important contributor to Hip Hop culture. Which makes it possible to describe him in these three words: Common is Classic.