Common Preps New Album "Finding Forever" With Help From Kanye, Lily Allen

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While writing the follow-up to 2005's Grammy-nominated Be, Chicago rapper Common drew inspiration from an unlikely place: Hollywood. "Acting opened up a new creative place for me," says the rapper, who made his film debut earlier this year in the crime thriller Smokin' Aces. "I felt a little more free -- I was thinking more about the characters in my songs and not putting as much pressure on the raps."

Common's storytelling chops are evident on Finding Forever, his seventh album, due out July 31st. The thirty-five-year-old rapper drops vignettes about injustice, love and people down on their luck over jazzy political anthems ("Black Maybe"), guitar-tinged bangers ("South Side") and vintage-soul throwbacks ("So Far to Go"). The plots can get heavy -- "Misunderstood," which features a smoky Nina Simone sample, deals with unemployment and AIDS -- but Common says he's just relaying the struggles he's seen. "It's my duty to be aware of what's going on so I can relate it," says Common, who name-checks Barack Obama, Whitney and Bobby and the "crazy astronaut lady" in his commentary. "And if I have any answers, I'll offer them in the music."

Forever got underway in early 2006, when Common hit the studio with Kanye West -- who he also collaborated with on Be -- to lay down tracks in Spain, Australia New Zealand and Hawaii between breaks on Kanye's world tour. The disc gets a boost from Lily Allen -- who supplies the hook on the piano-driven "Drivin' Me Wild" -- and the late J Dilla (who died of complications from lupus in 2006). The album's pensive vibe shines on the outro, "Forever Begins," which Common dedicates to Dilla. "Jay motivated me a lot," says Common, who lived with the producer in the months leading up to his death. "I'm creating more music that's got love and a higher spirit to it. That's what I'm talking about with Finding Forever -- leaving my mark.