Common Sense, deconstructed

June 11, 2006

This is a very long winded review of Common’s performance at Mark Ecko’s Save the Rhinos concert in Central Park, NYC. It is very late and I have yet to write about the rest of the show, which is a travesty considering the fact that the God, Rakim performed that day. I’ll get to it sometime, maybe. In the meantime, Common…

I don’t think you can really understand an artist’s music until you see them live. Some music leaps off the CD, bouncing with laughter and suggesting integrity and then falls apart when you realize how managed everything about the artist is when you see them in person. Sometimes it’s the reverse and a mundane piece of music is made meaningful by the performance. Seeing Common live was closer to the second, although I don’t think it’ll be enough to make declare Be a great or even good album.

I’ve seen footage of Common performing before and I probably ought to have expected him to bring the energy to stage, but I was still pretty surprised at how explosive he was onstage. Coming in performing the title track of off Be (this post is being written over a week after the concert, so some of this shit is bound to be totally wrong, sue me), that fool was jumping all over the stage like he was on drugs, but being Common, you know weed is the only thing you’d expect him to do and he was definitely too hyped up to have done any puffing before coming out. He pretty much kept that energy through the show, bouncing off the walls and getting really into all the jams, whether slow jams or the super classic “I used to love H.E.R.” Actually, that fool got so amped at some point during the concert he picked up a stick and started playing the drums, and then moved to thrashing the stage, throwing shit down and all. That’s right, heavy metal boho!

I got to be honest, I don’t completely believe Common. On stage, he showed himself to be more man and less a strange cloth automaton programmed permanently to boho. He made crass jokes, ground his hips and looked like he was really having fun when he got a girl to volunteer to come onstage and play lover while he did slow jams. So the man is a man after all. If you throw in the casual but pronounced homophobia on his records, his decidely fucked up obsession with miscegenation (black nation, I got to talk to you about some of your preoccupations) and his admittedly spotted record in relationships, he seems like a pretty standard fella, flawed but trying to make his way in the world.

So what am I not believing? I’ll try to explain. It’s something I discovered while watching Def Jam Poetry and have come to be extremely suspicious of in general. All those ultra righteous dudes who spit poetry and are all conscious and shit, those guys? They’re bastards too. In fact, I’ve come to suspect that they are bigger bastards than the rest of the straight thugging, play the field cats out there. In my imagination, the amount of emotional devastation these cats are able to wreck with that sensitive guy shit far outstrips the uninspired and pedestrian damage of your everyday homie. The previous statements refer to damage they cause women in relationships (which is what all those boho girls on Def Jam Poetry were going on about, but I basically think it applies to their whole philosophy and approach to life. What I’m saying is that I don’t buy that badge of righteousness in which all of this material is cloaked. And before you go saying that Common has never said he is righteous or perfect, take off your rose tinted contacts. His entire appeal and marketing approach rest on that “trying to be righteous and finding it hard, but still really trying really hard cause ma raised me to be good” scthick.

I could be wrong about this, the man could be earnest. Shit, the man probably is earnest and I’m just a paranoiac asshole who won’t give an artist and man a break. Sue me for holding on to my suspicions, suspicions that were not at all alleviated when I heard Be, the most impersonal Common album I’ve ever heard, one on which he goes away from himself and externalizes everything, positioning himself as spokesman for the people (“I stand for the blue collar, on the side on the side making a few dollars, Like Sam Jack they maneuver through drama like”). That approach worked and Be is Common’s most commercially successful album to date. Great, so what’s next? Well, how bout a song called “People.” If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it right? Com performed the track and it being a week later, I don’t remember the lyrics, but rest assured it was in the same populist strain that the “Corners” and “The Food” were in. It wasn’t a bad track. I remember enjoying it. Can’t tell you I believe it though. You can always tell when an artist starts to fake it and it is my personal suspicion that Like Water for Chocolate was the last time Common really had anything to say. I quite enjoyed Electric Circus (Electric Wire Hustle Flower!), unlike most people but I’ll agree that he was pretty much a guest on that album, taking second seat to all the weird stuff the folks in the back room were experimenting with. Ask me the greatest track Common ever did and I’ll hand you “The Sixth Sense,” which would easily find itself on my list of greatest hip hop songs of all time. That perfect Premier sound backing the intensely personal yet socially aware musings of the man:

The perseverance of a rebel I drop heavier levels
Its unseen or heard, a king with words
Cant knock the hustle, but I’ve seen street dreams deferred
Dark spots in my mind where the scene occurred
Some say I’m too deep, I’m in too deep to sleep

then,

In front of two-inch glass and Arabs I order fries
Inspiration when I write, I see my daughters eyes
I’m the truth

The man said he was the truth and I believed him, I totally fucking believed him. I once started a year at the Laundromat, trying to clean up the evidence of midnight’s debauchery, think about my life and putting this song on autorepeat till it’d played some twenty or so times. I didn’t come up with any epiphanies but I definitely came away convinced of the utter level of insanity Comm had unleashed. Thing is, on the album Like Water, this track is followed by the most misogynist little skit that ostensibly pokes fun at the idea of the conscious brother who is in fact a pimp. Let no one say the man ain’t self conscious.

Anyway, all this just to say I don’t trust boho dudes. Back to the concert. I hated Be. I thought every critic who said it was the greatest thing since hip hop escaped New York must have been totally smoked out both while listening to the album and writing the review, and as I don’t smoke weed or sess (cause, like the good Dr. said before dropping two albums named for the most potent strain of the shit, that stuff causes brain damage), I respectfully disagreed. In concert though, Com made it work. His enthusiasm, untouchable skill and charisma were off the books. And he didn’t no crappy hypeman either, none of that fake rap concert crap where you make up for your weak voice (what up Lupe) or crappy memory (too many of them to name) by having someone else rap your songs. Common had his lines down and performed them right. The band he had backing him played everything a lot harder and funkier than on the record, and so most of the tracks lost their Ambien like effect. Common also had the most bananas DJ on stage, some cat named DJ Dummy. Dummy got his spotlight halfway through the show, taking and scratching to death the superawesome Rob Bass and DJ EZ Rock vehicle, “It Takes Two” (this one’s a contender for greatest songs of all time). Them Brooklyn boys don’t play. This dude was totally off the hook. After seeing EZ-Trip and Kid Capri spinning earlier, I was reconfirmed in my opinion that people should not dabble in things such as being a DJ, that if they were going to do it, they ought to do it right. After I saw this kid, I was of the opinion that all the wannabe DJs should just give up and let the pros do their thing. Don’t be mad, UPS is hiring.

Anyway, Common did the slow jams, got Bilal (this dude is hella weird, but his shit knocks hard) to do vocals on a couple of tracks (can’t remember which) and closed the show on a real feel good tip. Overall I was totally feeling this concert and I would definitely encourage you to go see Common whenever you have a chance. He may be suspect as a boho, but he’s nothing but class as a performer.

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