Published Nov 03, 2020Given all the turmoil of 2020, is it time to uplift? Or burn it all down?
Common opts for the former on A Beautiful Revolution Pt. 1. The new album finds the veteran conscious MC striving to soothe and unify in the wake of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor's deaths, police altercations with Black Lives Matter protestors, and a pandemic that arguably hit people of colour and the impoverished the hardest.
A Beautiful Revolution Pt. 1 also stands in stark contrast, both musically and lyrically, to 2020's other major political rap album, RTJ4, by Com's contemporaries, Run the Jewels. Killer Mike delved into the despair of Black oppression and lashed out at police and corrupt politicians, creating an instant hip-hop classic over El-P's fittingly abrasive beats. Common, on the other hand prefers to soundtrack 2020 with a song like "Courageous." Over soulful flowing keys and steely skittering drums — courtesy of a live band led by aces jazz/hip-hop pianist Robert Glasper — Com spits with every fibre of his being about a new kingdom awaiting Black Americans before encouraging his listeners not to speak hate or give up hope. He even goes as far as imploring the galled masses to each honour their inner child. Noble? Certainly. But is it suited for a moment like this — a moment when so many wounds feel fresh and so many of us remain angry?
Even when Common lets his own vitriol bubble up, he remains comparatively cool, calm and collected. Lenny Kravitz lends his revved-engine guitar licks and swaggering voice to "A Riot in My Mind" as Com belts out one impassioned plea for peace after the next. While the rapper approaches the commanding boom of a bullhorn, the clunky track's attributes never cohere. Common's tone is also consistently measured throughout, bordering on analytical sociology and never amounting to the call for arms found in some of 2020's best anthems. "A Place in This World" shares some of the strengths and weaknesses of "Riot," but works better overall. Over a funky instrumental that bounces with resolute determination, Com effectively spits about injustice and phony politicians before sadly stumbling with puns about there being more "content than character" in the media.
Far more compelling is the moody and downcast bass driven "Fallin." Here, Common sounds more simmering; he never lets his coolness slip in terms of tone, but he does ruthlessly aim lyrics at "descendants of the Dutchmen" whose "clutches" are strangling his Black brethren. The MC then reveals the degree of mistrust some people have against the system, so much so that vaccines seem questionable and ripe for conspiracy theories. By capturing such a sordid state of affairs, Common rests his case for mastery of the mic.
That said, most of the tracks on A Beautiful Revolution Pt. 1 aren't so captivatingly contradictory or nuanced. The rest of the brisk 34-minute runtime is mostly dedicated to positivity — occasionally to the point of being pollyannish. But when Com teams up with fellow conscious vet Black Thought over the burly beat of "Say Peace" to argue for a better tomorrow, it's tough for all but the most hardened cynics not to follow along, as if he were the Pied Piper of empowerment. Anyone embittered by 2020's events, or too aloof to hold out much hope, should go ahead and try to dismiss "Courageous" as saccharine. After all, the track boasts none other than Stevie Wonder's timeless harmonica bursts, along with Common's doggedly upbeat rhymes.
So, if you're eager for a soundtrack to that new dawn, you'll clamour for A Beautiful Revolution Pt. 1's beams of betterment. And those of us who want to remain angry may still return to RTJ4 more often, though we must concede Common's outlook is both worth fighting for and believing in. (Loma Vista)