On the week that ended September 10, Common went viral. No, it wasn’t for A Beautiful Revolution, Pt. 2, the new album he dropped that Friday. Instead, it was for a YouTube clip of two freestyles he performed for the LA Leakers, a hip-hop show hosted by DJ sourMILK and Justin Credible on top-rated Los Angeles station Power 106. The video finds the Chicago rapper tearing into classic beats from Group Home’s “Living Proof” and Raekwon’s “Incarcerated Scarfaces” with gusto, dropping quotables like “This is pro-Black hoods, wrapped in backwoods” with ease, and spitting with the kind of verve that most rap fans didn’t realize the 49-year-old still had. It’s a stark reminder that Common is an all-time great, one of the best hip-hop artists the Midwest ever produced.
Unfortunately, more people will watch that video – currently at 290k views and counting – than listen to A Beautiful Revolution, Pt. 2. If the former dazzles with inspired bars, then Common’s 14th album (or 13th if, like Wikipedia, you classify last year’s A Beautiful Revolution, Pt. 1 as an EP) conforms to his persona as a righteous but staid adult contemporary artist. He’s been producing these middlingly pleasant albums stuffed with studious self-empowerment and courtly monogamous romance ever since 2016’s Black America Again. As far as grown-man rap goes, they’re not bad. It’s hard to blame him for replicating artistic peaks like 2000’s Like Water for Chocolate over and over.
There’s much to recommend on A Beautiful Revolution, Pt. 2. Jessica Care Moore opens with a magnetic spoken-word poem, “Intro (Push out the Noise),” that celebrates Black resilience and “relearning the subtle art of breathing” despite “well-traveled scars.” An excursion with Black Thought and Seun Kuti, “When We Move,” results in a peppery Afrobeat jam where Common riffs, “Smeared like lipstick/Colorful/On our souls/A mouthful of gold or a drummer’s roll.” He has good chemistry with frequent collaborator Paris “PJ” Jones, particularly on the inspirational nu-funk of “Imagine.” But when Brittany Howard dominates “Saving Grace” with a bluesy, wailing vocal, all Common has in response are clunkers like “I was told that life’s a bitch/I hope she don’t kill my vibe.” Overall, he gives an uneven performance.
Common has described A Beautiful Revolution, Pt. 2 as an album full of “hope and inspiration” after the tumult of last year’s George Floyd protests, Trumpian electoral carnage, and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. It’s intended as a healing balm, not a platform for the kind of smackdowns that thrill heads. Yet as Nas recently proved with his warm and contented King’s Disease II, it’s possible to thrive artistically as a successful fortysomething rapper without resorting to youthful rhetorical violence. No one expects or wants Common to revert to his “Bitch in Yoo” battle-rap prime, but at least he can challenge himself and his audience with interesting thematic choices – a feat he pulled off with 2014’s No I.D.-produced Nobody’s Smiling, a homage to his troubled hometown of Chicago – or the kind of passion he showed on that LA Leakers video.
Is Common’s real focus on acting now, and starring in movies like Girls Trip, Smallfoot and Ava? There’s enough evidence on A Beautiful Revolution, Pt. 2 to suggest that he still cares about music, but it may take more than mellow bromides and Obama shout-outs to truly convince us.