Common feat. Kanye West and the Last Poets — “The Corner”

Released: 3.1.05

Peak: #42 [R&B/Hip-Hop]

Few rap subgenres are as maligned as “conscious rap.” Haha, just kidding — every rap genre is maligned by somebody, often deservedly. If “conscious,” like “emo,” can be a barely cloaked dig at a performer’s masculinity, well, those who hate the hustle on principle are always willing to overrate good intentions, so unwarranted hate and praise neutralize each other. More worrisome for us well-wishers is the ease with which that tag takes in not just social consciousness (admirable) but the mystical kind (foolish).

You can hear that clash on consciousnesses on “The Corner,” in the contrast between Common’s earnest street-level reportage and the elder Last Poets jabbering poetically about Stonehenge. Yet much as he tries to observe rather than preach, even Common slips into rhymes are more evocative than descriptive, and when Kanye pleads, “I wish I could give you this feeling,” he unwittingly encapsulating the biggest problem with conscious rap — listeners should feel the same as you, rather than being moved by your artistry.

That’s always been Common’s dilemma. With his phlegmy voice and deliberate rhymes, he’s always come across as a guy who values rather than articulates deep thought. Beginning with his image-establishing, high concept allegory “I Used to Love H.E.R.,” he’s sensed something missing from the music he loves, but he’s struggled to supply that missing essential.

And when he’s succeeded, as on “The Corner,” that triumph has been musical. Common has always kept a “neo” firmly affixed to his trad, seeking out productions that reference black musical tradition without going all Sha Na Na about the past like Jurassic 5. Five years earlier it was Dilla and James Poyser pillowing “The Light” in au courant lushness. On “The Corner,” Kanye interweaves Stax and Motown samples to simulate the bustle of street life the lyrics grope toward depicting. But let’s not forget that Common himself is part of that music–the way he masterfully strings a series of long “o” sounds through his first verse contributes to the vitality of “The Corner” as surely as Kanye’s beat.

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