[Editor's Note: Fuck Guilty Pleasures celebrates the over-produced, commercial, artless, lowbrow music that we believe is genuinely worthwhile. Like, among the best music ever.]
Rap only exists in extremes. Don't let the polite reviews of Lil Wayne's Carter IV fool you, for instance. It got lots of polite 6 out of 10s, but people hated that thing. History will invalidate it. There are three ways rap fans remember periods of an artist's career:
1. On the ascent
2. At the top
3. After his or her prime
But Common tends to defy these rules: After “I Used to Love H.E.R.” — which some folks still call the GOAT rap song — how much the public likes him often seems attributable to outside factors. The Soulquarians-produced Like Water for Chocolate blew up at the height of the Okayplayer era, the same time when the Roots scored a Grammy with Things Fall Apart and reclusive genius D'Angelo made his deep-crate epic Voodoo. Later, Common's Be would score big with a full Kanye production at the height of Kanye's debut success.
Between those two records, Common released an album that exemplifies the rule that polite 6s are retrospective zeroes. Electric Circus was his attempt to be a weirdo, with a Sgt. Pepper-inspired cover and a Stereolab cameo, with song titles like “Electric Wire Hustle Flower.” Released in the wake of OutKast's intergalactic Stankonia, when his friends the Roots were first experimenting with punk tracks and ten-minute psych odysseys, some Entertainment Weekly types (including Entertainment Weekly) gave it an A for effort. But “conscious” rap quickly dwindled in favor of Cam'ron, Lil Wayne and Clipse, it became clear that Common was falling out of favor, and after Be the consensus is mainly that he fell off, though his second Kanye-helmed record Finding Forever found a few takers. With Universal Mind Control and The Dreamer/The Believer, he pretty much exited the conversation (in a Lincoln Navigator, of course).
But we must give him credit: Through it all Common has been content to do his own thing. Since he stopped complaining about gangsta rap, he hasn't been a priss about current trends overtaking him, and nor has he been inclined to adapt to them. Universal Mind Control was a “pop” album with unfashionable lo-fi Neptunes beats in 2008, while Dreamer can only be described as a typical Common album. But take another listen — none of his works from this era are bad at all.
Finding Forever is quite pretty actually, a continuation of Be with Kanye's soul samples even more flowing and patchwork, delving deeper into his maximally melodic take on J Dilla's timelessness. “South Side” and “The People” have layers and layers of prettiness going on — check out the breathless woodwinds and sideways piano tingles on the verses of “Start the Show.” Without the rapping, you'd have a wondrous Kanye beat tape from the College Dropout/Late Registration era. We realize that sounds like a backhanded Common compliment, at best, but give the man credit for choosing great great beats from Questlove, Kanye and Pharrell.
Universal Mind Control was completely despised upon release, but plays now like casual fun. Tracks like “Gladiator,” “Announcement” and the Missy/Timbo-worthy beat of the title tune, are all quite accessible. It's the rare “crossover” album that sounds completely unforced and small-stakes. It sounds like the kind of album a happy and accomplished guy makes when he knows his label deal is ending.
His next album was everything a latter-day Common record should sound like, and yet it still feels neglected. The Dreamer/The Believer reached the top 20, sold six digits, won polite reviews, and sounded like a Common career summation. Its best track, “The Believer,” was a John Legend feature with a beautiful backdrop that would've fit perfectly on Be or Finding Forever.
Common is still here, nine albums into a genre where few people last three. He seems like a somewhat relaxed dude, at a time when Kanye, Waka Flocka Flame, Rick Ross, and Nicki Minaj are sucking the air out of the room. People should be proud of the rapper who knows his limitations and makes the most of his zone. His records are definitely taken for granted because rap fans are so obsessed with greatness. But he embodies a vintage hip-hop idea: that it's all good.