Common 

The Dreamer, The Believer

We can safely infer that Common won't be campaigning for Newt Gingrich this election season. In May, Fox News scolded the blue-state MC for making a publicity op at the White House. It wasn't the first time the network had slandered a rapper, but Common appeared an unlikely target. That he's the closest thing hip-hop has to an ambassador for positivity didn't register in the Fox orbit.

Then again, Common's lyrics are so thick with references to the prison industrial complex and Seventies afrocentrism, one has to wonder if he knowingly baits conservatives. Raised in Chicago, just blocks south of the neighborhood that housed a young Curtis Mayfield, he enjoys guiding listeners through black music history. If you discovered Fela Kuti thanks to Like Water for Chocolate, you're not alone. But after hitting pay dirt with 2005's Be, a plush, malty flavoring of soul and funk, Common has wavered out of focus in recent years. The less said about 2008's sketchy Universal Mind Control, the better.

The Dreamer/The Believer suggests that Common has regained his mojo. He seems empowered by his kinship with Nas, whose Illmatic was a guiding influence on Common's 1994 coup Resurrection; the two trade bars on the stalwart "Ghetto Dreams." "Raw (How I Like It)" mirrors the sturdy, mellow production of Nas albums like It Was Written and God's Son. Resurrection producer No I.D. loans a fluted edge to "Blue Sky," even coaxing life out of a snippet from "Mr. Blue Sky" by Electric Light Orchestra.

At 39, Common has grown less anal about policing his boho-intellectual persona. Here he's a chameleon, wheeling from battle rap on "Sweet" to introspection on "Celebrate" and sounding more animated than he has in years. Then there's "Pops Belief," an adoring tribute to Lonnie Lynn Sr. (Think Common)

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