The first thing that came to mind upon seeing Common's latest album, Finding Forever, go to the top of the charts was "At last!" With the surplus of negative rappers out there, Common and his latest album promotes a very positive and healthy energy. His album emits a very ethereal and musical effort thrust forth by a team of focused producers (headed by but not dominated by Kanye West) and a lyricist with flows to go. What we do see in Common's rise to fame is a chance for both sides of hip-hop's tale to be told.
It proves to so many true hip-hop fans that, with the proper mix of marketing, magic and a belief in the music as a whole, an underground rapper with a non-gangsta message can make it to the top of the charts. However, it also made me wonder if other rappers in his "genre" would also follow suit or would they "flop" in an increasingly fickle music market. After all, if we take a look at Common's latest moves, it seems that he has taken steps to dabble in the mainstream and develop his persona within pop culture rather than waiting for it to come to him. His radio single didn't create buzz for his album amongst the average music fan; he did. Even his association with Kanye West isn't a guarantee he would do well. Yet he did, because he (and his team) have worked hard to develop his name.
In the last 3-4 years, he has been name-dropped by Jay-Z on "Moment of Clarity," a song off his acclaimed The Black Album. Just that little mention gave him a much-needed boost. His feature on Kanye's "Get 'Em High" along with his signing to Kanye's G.O.O.D. Music label immediately gave him the association to pop he needed. Through this association, a rather sexy single "Go" featuring John Mayer, and a strong album touching both his neo-soul and rap roots later, we have what many called a revival of real hip-hop, and Common as the embodiment.
His promotions include Gap commercials and posters, Converse posters, PETA ads (a connection which has led many to call him "the first vegetarian sex symbol"), a leading track on the soundtrack for the movie Freedom Writers ("I Have A Dream" featuring will-i-am), a substantial role in Smokin' Aces with an all star cast of Ben Affleck, Jeremy Piven, and Alicia Keys, and an appearance on Saturday Night Live with Piven adds up to his substantial visibility. His star will only prove to shine brighter for years to come, with a role in American Gangster with Russell Crowe and Denzel Washington, The Night Watchmen with Keanu Reeves and Forest Whitaker, and Wanted with Angelina Jolie and Morgan Freeman. In other words, his brand name has become enormous.
But then I take it back to an earlier portion of this decade when the underground's "superstars" emerged. The clan of rappers associated with Common i.e. Mos Def, Talib Kweli, The Roots, and Pharoahe Monch among others really started to be typecast for their type of music (usually Afrocentric, edgy, raw, and heavily lyrical). Can we honestly say Common's #1 pole position on the Billboard charts will elevate their movement?
Talib Kweli's latest album, Eardrum, is slated to come out on Tuesday, August 21st. Despite a huge Internet presence through MySpace, Facebook, and his own website TalibKweli.com, and an enormous following (which I witnessed at last year's Blacksmith Free Concert in downtown Manhattan, NYC), his album push-backs have caused unease even amongst his most devout fans. Hence, he has yet to break the wall between pop and not. (Interestingly enough, Common's surprise appearance at that concert literally had everyone's jaw on the floor.) Mos Def has quietly disappeared from rap as a whole, mainly focused on hosting Def Poetry Jam and making surprise guest appearances in the Boondocks: The Animated Series and Dave Chappelle's Block Party. He will soon release his own album under a new record label, but there seems to be a large disconnect with Mos the actor and host versus Mos the rapper.
Pharoahe Monch hasn't been as quiet as Mos on the rap scene, but his latest recognizable contribution to popular hip-hop music was his writing credentials for Diddy's "The Future" and "Hold Up" on Press Play. And The Roots get signed to Def Jam, the biggest hip-hop label ever, and their latest release The Game Theory doesn't get 1/2 the burn it deserved, even after collaborating with Jay-Z on his Unplugged CD and ?uestlove's absolute visibility.
In other words, Common isn't common. Until artists like Immortal Technique, Jean Grey, or Little Brother place anywhere in a substantial pole position, the division of underground and mainstream remains. Common has built up his brand in the mold of a Norah Jones or even a Jill Scott, where people don't even need to know the title of the album to purchase the product, confident that it's just that good.Powered by Sidelines