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Dreaming It All Makes Sense Again

Posted by doktakra on December 30, 2011 at 11:15 AM Comments comments (0)

Common acts like a movie star.A year-and-a-half ago, after the disaster that was Universal Mind Control and Common's starring role in the perhaps equally awful Just Wright, I criticized Common, my favorite musician growing up, for trying to "become an aspiring Hollywood actor who's now irrelevant in hip-hop and no longer cares about putting out quality music."

Despite the fact that Common was reuniting with producer No I.D. for the first time since 1997's One Day It'll All Make Sense (which was my high school year book quote, by the way), I was still skeptical about buying his ninth album, The Dreamer/The Believer.  U.M.C. was just that bad, a cacophonous mess so poorly considered and executed, which so desperately tried to appeal to the pop charts and accompanying video crossover circuit, that it made me reevaluate Common's place in hip-hop history as one of the most introspective and thought-provoking "conscious" rappers ever.

Still, I couldn't deny the fact the first two singles off Dreamer/Believer, "Ghetto Dreams" and "Sweet" sounded infinitely closer to the Common I used to know.  After a week-and-a-half of debating whether it was worth my $12, I decided to give him another chance.

As the album title would suggest, Common mainly sticks to preaching about (spoiler alert) dreaming and believing, whether it's about the type of woman he wants or about his aspirations to make the world around him a better place.  No I.D.'s production, full of soulful vocal samples and grooves, perfectly accompanies Common's uplifting vibe. The beats do get a little repetitive, and the choruses rarely stand out, but the nostalgic sound is unquestionably a step in the right direction.

On the intro track, “The Dreamer,” Common sets the tone with inspirational and uplifting rhymes over beautiful bass and drum kicks, before a spoken word piece by Dr. Maya Angelou. Common manages to use his own mainstream success as an example of striving to achieve goals in a way that surprisingly comes off as endearing and genuine.

“Kinda took me back to when I first had a dream / To be like the king that sang "Billie Jean" / Now it's gold records, and I'm on silver screens / At the mountaintop, you still gotta dream."

It's not exactly new and unchartered territory for him, but when Common is back to waxing poetic on tracks about love and relationships, such as "Cloth," a touching ode to women, and "Windows," a heartfelt song dedicated to his daughter, few can do it better.  “Lovin’ I Lost,” on which he reminisces about a break-up over a melancholy Curtis Mayfield sample, and "The Believer," which features John Legend, are his two best songs I've heard since Be.

At the same time, it's still hard to take Common all that seriously now when he fires shots at "sing-song" rappers (hi, Drake) on "Sweet," and plays up his street cred by boasting “’You Hollywood’/ Nah, n****, I’m Chicago / So I cracked his head with a motherf***ing bottle" on "Raw." At times, it seems like he's trying too hard to convince the listener to believe, fittingly enough, that he's still an underground legend rather than a commercial star.  The later track also includes two unforgivably bad puns -- “aware of her chest because I stay abreast” and “what’s in front of me is this great behind." Ugh.

Billed as Common’s return to making socially conscious hip-hop, the album as a whole has a familiar '90's style and recognizable flow.  It's not the second coming of Resurrection by any means, but it has enough going for it to at least not make me wish that the gifted MC would become a full-time actor (plus, there's no way I'm watching Just Wright II or even Hell on Wheels).

Sing for the Moment

Posted by doktakra on January 18, 2011 at 11:14 AM Comments comments (0)

There are certain songs we'll never forget that play a special part in our lives.  “Our songs," whether they remind us of a school dance, a first kiss, or some crazy party, come on the radio and instantly put us in a good mood as we sing along, pretending as if we know all of the lyrics. For me, aside from all R. Kelly tracks, of course – which are either unintentionally comedic beyond words or brilliant, with no in-between – there are a few songs, for better or worse, that always take me back.  Well, at least, these are the ones I can talk about on this (somewhat) family-friendly site.

Carl Carlton, “Everlasting Love – I was a horrible basketball player during my first year of summer camp. I pretty much nailed all of the stereotypes of the nerdy, unathletic white kid, and I'm pretty sure there was a time when other campers decided five-on-four would be more competitive than picking me for a team. So, when I came back home, I convinced my parents to put a basketball hoop in the driveway and spent hours pretending I was Mitch Richmond. During the bus ride back to camp the next year, "Everlasting Love" came on the radio, and for some reason, I took it as a sign. I stepped out on the court at camp, and the same kids who used to ridicule me, couldn't believe how good I'd become. Feeling cool and confident, I played a guy one-on-one for his girlfriend in front of everyone and emerged victorious, all while humming "Everlasting Love" the entire time. This will always be the highlight of my basketball career. Yes, I was 14.

Eminem, "The Way I Am" - Just as I dreamed of becoming the first ‘cool’ white rapper (Vanilla Ice and Snow obviously failed in that regard), Eminem busted on the scene with “My Name Is” and crushed my hopes. So, I did what any normal person in my position would do – I wrote Jewish parodies of Eminem’s singles, and eventually other hip-hop artists’. “I Am,” “Stan,” Dr. Dre’s “Still D.R.E.” were a few of my bigger hits, which I’d post on Napster and rename as popular Limp Bizkit, Christina Aguilera, and 'N Sync songs to get more downloads and get my name out there. The strategy sort of worked, but I was banned from performing them at my school’s talent show for risk of offending someone (I think I had a Yiddish swear word in one). I probably still have the MP3s (or WAV files) on my parents’ old computer, but I don't plan on re-releasing them anytime soon.

Donell Jones, "Where I Wanna Be" – Jones’ hit is still one of my favorite songs, even though it was playing on the radio when I was involved in a minor fender-bender in high school – with an off-duty cop. It was definitely not where I wanted to be at the time. Making matters worse, I was wearing my school's windbreaker track pants, which I conveniently "forgot" to give back at the end of the season because they were incredibly comfortable. So, of course, my track coach happened to be passing on the street during the time of the accident, and called me into his office the next day to get the damn pants back. The good news is, after years of paperwork, I somehow convinced the insurance company that it wasn't my fault. No such luck with the pants.

The Offspring, “Pretty Fly (For a White Guy) – You may not believe this, but there was a time when I acted, um, ‘hood’ in my tiny, suburban New Jersey high school. Naturally, everyone decided that “Pretty Fly” was written about me and sang it whenever I was in the hallway. If that wasn’t enough, some of the girls also started calling me “Kenny,” in honor of Seth Green’s character in Can’t Hardly Wait, which came out around the same time.  Shockingly, I was single the entire time. Ninety-two percent, yo!

Common's Wright To Be

Posted by doktakra on May 5, 2010 at 2:03 PM Comments comments (0)

When I heard that Common would be appearing at the NBA Store today to promote his new movie, Just Wright, I called him a sell-out on Twitter.  I immediately received replies from people who disagreed -- including someone who worked on the movie set -- and claimed that he had the right to pursue an acting career.


In retrospect, maybe "sell-out" wasn't the right word. It was just easier than saying, "I can't believe my one-time favorite, underground rapper has become an aspiring Hollywood actor who's now irrelevant in hip-hop and no longer cares about putting out quality music."  That, and "sell out" fit within the 140-character Twitter limit.


I've been with Common (Sense) since the very beginning, and I didn't suddenly turn on him for no reason.  I still remember hearing "I Used to Love H.E.R." and being blown away by the beautifully crafted concept of "Hip Hop in its Essence and Real."  The cool kids in my (mostly white, suburban) middle school who were into rap had no idea who Common even was -- for a while, his lyricism and intellectual wordplay on Resurrection, my all-time favorite album, was almost like my little secret.


I picked up his witty debut, Can I Borrow A Dollar?, found some of his early '90's demo tapes, and bought One Day It'll All Make Sense (1996)a deep and nostalgic trip through his past, on the day it was released.  When Common became more widely known and recognized after Like Water For Chocolate (2000) -- I was shocked that my girlfriend at the time thought he was hot -- I performed his commercial hit, "The Light," at my high school talent show.


As a sophomore in college, I stared at the cover of the poorly-reviewed, electronica and rock-inspired Electric Circus, briefly considering leaving it sealed in the shrink-wrap to preserve the good memories of his past works, before finding the courage to to open it.  My friends and I went to a few of his shows when he toured in New York, and when I talked to Common after a performance, he sounded genuinely proud and excited to take hip-hop into another direction -- one that I, and many others, didn't appreciate.  I thought I'd never hear the same poetic prophet and self-righteous rhyme artist I grew to love.


A few years later, seeing Common and Kanye West perform "The Food" on Chappelle's Show was like hearing from an old friend I thought was long gone.  But while Be, and the subsequent Finding Forever were some of his best and most vibrant albums, Common expressed a growing desire to get into acting.  The writing had been on the wall for a few years, after he'd written jingles and appeared in commercials for conglomerates Coca-Cola and The Gap.


Many of his rap peers had already established themselves in Hollywood: former N.W.A.'er Ice Cube was putting out family comedies; Original Gangster Ice-T went from causing controversy with "Cop Killer" to playing a cop on Law & Order: SVU less than a decade later; LL Cool J had a couple of notable movie roles and would soon do his best David Caruso impression on NCIS: Los Angeles; and Snoop Dogg endorsed every imaginable product by adding "izzle" at the end of its name.


I never thought I'd see the day when Common would be following in their footsteps, but I didnt fault him for earning more money, as long as his music didn't suffer as a result.  Instead, when his long-awaited Invincible Summer came out in December 2008 under the title of Universal Mind Control, my biggest fears were realized.


I would've been okay had Common decided to become a full-time actor and left the rap game entirely, if it spared me from listening to a rushed, 10-track, 39-minute album filed with unclever sexual references and clichéd dance tracks like the gag-worthy "Sex 4 Suga."  Whether it was a conscious decision to appeal to a broader audience by sounding like Ludacris or T.I., or lack of time from filming his parts in American Gangster and Smokin' Aces, Common dumbed down his conscience-provoking style for unimaginative narratives -- “Check my dictionary / That ass is so defined” -- and ditched the smooth, jazzy production of Kanye West, the late J. Dilla, and No ID for the Neptunes’ pop beats.


The man who chastised hip-hop for getting "caught in the Hype Williams" and losing H.E.R. direction on The Roots' -- who casual fans now know as the house band on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon  -- "Act Too (Love of My Life)," shot a video for Universal's lead single with (who else?) Hype Williams.


On "Announcement," possibly his raunchiest song to date, Common alluded to his past glory in unexpected and heart-breaking fashion -- "I still love H.E.R., she be needing the d*** / When it comes to hip hop it's just me and my b****."  Whoa.  I had to rewind and listen to that part four or five times to make sure I heard him correctly.


Since the album's release, Common's landed a supporting role in Date Night and the lead in Just Wright, a romantic basketball movie with another rapper-turned-actor, Queen Latifah.  Meanwhile, he's promised "raw hip-hop" on his upcoming album, The Believer, which is slated to come out sometime this year.  Until, of course, another script comes his way.  

I really did used to love H.I.M.

Girl in the Life Magazine

Posted by doktakra on January 17, 2009 at 1:21 PM Comments comments (3)

I'm not a big magazine person -- or a book person, for that matter -- but I like to skim the occasional US Weekly to catch up on the last celebrity gossip (don't judge me).  I've also had a subscription to Entertainment Weekly for the last few years, but only because happens to be excellent reading material for the toilet -- what, like you don't do it?  That said, there are a few magazines out there that I won't ever buy on principle alone...

Vibe:  I don't know if this is common knowledge, but I didn't know that Vibe has a policy against putting white musicians on the cover until Robin Thicke explained it in a recent interview.  First of all, what about the time they put Eminem on the cover and also named him the best rapper alive (don't even get me started on that ridiculous 'contest')?  But more importantly, I wouldn't expect anyone to have a closed-minded view like that in this day and age.  Imagine the outrage if a "white" magazine like Rolling Stone said they wouldn't put any black artists on the cover.  In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that I have a free subscription to Vibe through some promotion, and I really enjoyed the nude Ciara issue a few months ago.  But I won't buy it in stores after the subscriptions ends...well, unless another beautiful naked woman is on the cover.

Blender:   For a magazine that calls itself "the ultimate guide to music," the editors need a lesson in hip-hop.  Check out their picks for the 40 Worst Lyricists in Rock (where "rock" apparently means all genres of music) -- how the hell does Common make that list?  He's at #36 and KRS-One is at #25, while Kevin Federline is at #30.  Seriously?  Maybe I could understand if this was published after he released the cringeworthy Universal Mind Control, but this was in 2007, when Be and Finding Forever were critically acclaimed just about everywhere.  And their choice for worst lyric isn't even from Common -- it's from Canibus, who is featured on "Making a Name for Ourselves."  What do Cam'Ron and the Ying Yang Twins have to do to get mentioned?  I gotta say though, it's a little ironic that there's an ad for Zune 3.0 featuring Common on that same page...

Maxim / FHM / Stuff:  I know, after what I said about Vibe, this doesn't seem to make a lot of sense.  But there's a specific reason why I don't buy any of these men's entertainment mags. A few years ago, one of them had a whole column about ways to smack a girl's butt without getting in trouble.  I know they're supposed to be funny and appeal to guys, but come on..that's irresponsible and shameful.  And no, I never tried any of their "tips" because I'm not that type of dude...even though a few could potentially work.  Hmm....

And finally, as an addendum to my "People I Hate" post, I can't believe I forgot to mention people who get on the elevator to go down one floor.  If you have two working legs, there's no reason why you can't walk down one freaking flight of stairs.  Instead, I have to waste a minute of my time while the elevator stops on your floor, opens and closes (do 'door close' buttons do anything??), stops again, and then opens and closes again.  If you think I'm cursing you out under my breath, you're right on...take the damn stairs next time.

Damn It Feels Good To Be A Gangsta

Posted by doktakra on November 12, 2007 at 4:53 PM Comments comments (0)

I saw American Gangster over the weekend, and came away impressed.  It started off a little slow, and for a second I thought I was getting lost -- which, by the way, is the worst possible feeling in a theater.  But the action picked up at just the right moment, as the rise of Frank Lucas unfolded at a steady pace.  It reminded me of Scarface in some ways, which is the biggest compliment a rapper could give (just ignore that last comment).  I did find a few small things a little odd...none of them ruined the movie or anything, but you know...over-analyzing is my hobby.  **Minor spoiler alert if you haven't seen the movie yet.

1)  The casting of Cuba Gooding, Jr. as the pimp/club owner was the pinnacle of unintentional comedy.  I kept waiting for him to starting yelling, "Hey, Denzel!  I'm wearing your underwear!"   Seriously, whoever decided it was a good idea to put him in that role should never work in Hollywood again.  This singlehandedly ruined one of the pivotal scenes in the movie (the brand discussion).

2)  I loved the trio of rappers (Common, T.I., and The RZA) in supporting roles, as you knew I would.  The problem was that I was distracted by the Wu-Tang Clan tattoo on RZA's shoulder.  They couldn't have him wear a shirt with sleeves, or maybe digitally removed it?  I mean, sure, he doesn't have to be a rapper to have a tattoo like that...except that it's supposed to be the late 1960s, remember?

3)  We're told that Frank makes his female employees work in the nude so they can't steal anything from him.  That actually made me think of a way they still could, especially since the movie is about illegal drug smuggling, but that's besides the point.  Some of the women were clearly wearing bras and/or panties, which made me wonder if those particular actresses refused to be fully nude.  Um, they couldn't find enough extras to appear naked on screen with Denzel Washington?  Hell, I would've done it had they asked me.  You heard me.

On a related note, Jay-Z's new album -- which is based on movie and shares the same title, but is NOT the official soundtrack -- makes much more sense after seeing Gangster.  I was really looking forward to it, but despite the good reviews from just about every trusted source, I'm not feeling it that much.  For the record, I own every Jay-Z album -- save The Dynasty: Roc La Familia (which isn't really a solo album, as much as a Roc-a-Fella collaboration) -- so its not as if I'm a newcomer to his style  Even Kingdom Come, arguably Jay's weakest effort, had a couple of favorites that I are in my steady rotation.  The man himself calls Gangster a "work of genius," and all modesty aside, Jay is as lyrically sharp as ever.  But I just feel like there's something missing --  I find the pace a little monotonous and slow.  Maybe that's because it's a 'concept album' with each song based on a scene in the movie and simultaneously incorporating his own upbringing.  I'll probably give it few more spins to see if it'll grow on me a little more, but after two listens, I'm yet to find a song I really love. 

[Minor Update:  "Roc Boys," "Ignorant Sh*t," and "American Dreamin'" have so far warranted repeat play.]

Kanye West is a D***

Posted by doktakra on September 8, 2007 at 7:07 PM Comments comments (2)

There's no other way to say it.  I went to F.Y.E. in midtown Manhattan for a Kanye autograph signing, which also required a pre-order of his new album, Graduation.  Well, not only does the guy show up an hour late -- after blowing off an NBC Today Show appearance to boot -- but he doesn't allow any pictures of or with him, refuses to personalize anything, and won't even shake anyone's hand.  After he quickly scribbled something illegible on my centerfold mini-poster 'graduation certificate' , he managed to give me the most fake smile I've ever seen, along with a half-hearted handshake that only got out of him by grabbing his hand, much to the dismay of his four bodyguards.  I mean, I realize he doesn't care what people think and has a just a bit of an ego -- but even he knows that the fans are the ones who bring in the money and make him famous.  I wasn't the only one who was pissed off after the signing, but apparently I was the only one to cancel my pre-order, according to the store's sale staff.  Serves him right -- I hope he loses to 50 Cent next Tuesday...nah, I don't really mean that.  I won't lie, I'll still probably pick up his CD at some point, but Mr. West has lost a lot of his appeal to me.