One of my running jokes on Twitter is that I hate the rapper/actor Common. No; hate is the wrong word. The joke is that I consider Common my personal archenemy.
I like Mos Def's verse and chorus on that song so much that I usually forget Common is on it too— Tim Carmody (@tcarmody) January 6, 2016
(Common is not very good)
When Reed tells Doom, “I’ve always believed that you could be better than what you are” — THIS is how I feel about MY own archenemy, Common— Tim Carmody (@tcarmody) January 16, 2016
Now, it’s certainly true that I generally think there are better rappers and especially better actors than Common. And I think “I Used To Love H.E.R.” is a shining example of supposed consciousness and integrity hiding a lazy misogyny. But I’m mostly playing this up, because it’s funny to me how strong my feelings sometimes run — in general, not just about music or movies, and particular, about Common.
There are songs featuring Common that I absolutely love: Black Star’s “Respiration” is definitely one of them.
J. Dilla’s “So Far To Go,” with Common and D’Angelo, is another. Even if its greatness has more to do with Dilla and D’Angelo’s contributions than Common’s (and some of his lyrics make me shake my head), it’s just beautiful:
It’s probably most accurate to say: Common bugs me. Take the end of his verse on “Respiration”:
Ask my guy how he thought travellin’ the world sound
Found it hard to imagine he hadn’t been past downtown
It’s deep, I heard the city breathe in its sleep
A reality I touch, but for me it’s hard to keep
Deep, I heard my man breathe in his sleep
A reality I touch, but for me it’s hard to keep
Now, that last couplet — that’s a pretty good line. You can tell Common knows it, too, because he repeats it. Why does he repeat it?
Now, this is educated conjecture, but: he really likes it, he thinks it’s profound, and he wants to hang a lantern on it. And: it’s because the structure of the verse demands another rhyme, and he doesn’t have a better one.
As a writer and editor, this offends me. This is super-presumptive on my part, but I feel just a little bit like Lydia Davis in this terrific anecdote from her 2014 New Yorker profile that I think about all the time:
One recent morning, Davis sat at her kitchen table with a pocket-size black notebook and a hardcover novel by a popular writer, whom she asked me not to name. “I don’t like to hurt people’s feelings, and I don’t like to knock other writers as a matter of principle,” she said. Though enjoyably soap-operatic, the novel, that month’s selection for her book club—local women, wine, family talk—was full of mixed metaphors. “I’ve gotten very alert not just to mixed metaphor but to any writing mistake,” she said. “A little bell goes off in my head first. I know something’s wrong here. Then secondly I see what it is.” She opened the notebook and read a sentence about an acute intimacy that had eroded into something dull. “Acute is sharp, and then eroded is an earth metaphor,” she said. She read another: “ ‘A paper bag stuffed with empty wine bottles.’ I thought about that. You’d think he could get away with it, but he can’t, because ‘stuffed’ is a verb that comes from material. It’s soft, so it’s a problem to stuff it with something hard.” There were sentences about camouflaging with a veneer, and girding with an orb, and boomeranging parallels. “Whenever I read this kind of thing, it tells me the writer is not sensitive to the full value of the idea of comparison,” she said.
I want to like Common. But he keeps getting in the way. I wish he would get out of the way.
Note: I feel this way about a lot of people. Blake Griffin — really, the entire Los Angeles Clippers — Cam Newton (although I’m mellowing on Cam), Dwight Howard, Kyrie Irving, Pete Townshend, Paul Simon, post-Exile in Guyville Liz Phair, Batman, more of my fellow journalists and scholars than I am comfortable naming. I just want them to be better artists, public personalities, and/or humans than they are.
Now, one artist I am 100 miles per hour excited about pretty much all the time is Kendrick Lamar. Kendrick is great because, like Anthony Davis, he got great in a hurry and there’s a very good chance he’s going to get even better as time goes on. Even if the things he says sometimes makes you shake your head — and really, once you start shaking your head at hip-hop and pro athletes, you’re never going to stop — he’s so charming that you forgive him everything. (It’s the same quality that Eazy-E, Snoop Dogg, and pre-2000 Tom Cruise had.)
Here’s an example of why I like Kendrick Lamar so much. This is from “Backseat Freestyle,” a joyous, thoroughly juvenile, and exceptionally well-crafted single from his 2012 album good kid, m.A.A.d city.
Goddamn I feel amazing, damn I’m in the matrix
My mind is living on cloud nine and this 9 is never on vacation
Start up that Maserati and VROOM-VROOM, I’m racing
Popping pills in the lobby and I pray they don’t find her naked
Now, that second part of the first line almost always trips me up. First of all, I’m not totally convinced that it’s “damn I’m in the matrix” and not “damn I’m in the majors,” but the first is what most of the lyrics sites go with, so, ok, whatever.
Second of all, it’s not the song’s hook, but it shows up where the hook might go (before the first bridge or hook ever appears) and parallels its structure. This is how the hook goes:
Goddamn I got bitches, damn I got bitches
Damn I got bitches, wifey, girlfriend and mistress
All my life I want money and power
Respect my mind or die from lead showers
So you have this “Goddamn/damn” partial parallel in the hook, which is fully paralleled in this verse. Which makes you think, once you know the song, that he’s going to lead into “Goddamn I got bitches” rather than “Goddamn I feel amazing.” And he repeats “I got bitches” three times, which leads you to think, okay, he’s going to repeat “I feel amazing.” But he doesn’t. He goes into “goddamn I’m in the matrix/majors.”
And in fact, every single one of the hooks is just a little bit different. Sometimes after “damn I got bitches,” he adds a little contrapuntal “okay,” and sometimes he doesn’t.
It actually reminds me a little of what Paul Simon does to the hook on “Graceland.” Go to about five minutes in, and you get a fraction of the story of composing this song: the full version on Under African Skies (from which these clips are taken) is terrific.
Anyways, on “Graceland” sometimes the hook is more straightforward (“I’m going to Graceland / Memphis, Tennessee / I’m going to Graceland”) and sometimes it’s a permutation (“In Graceland, in Graceland / I’m going to Graceland”). It’s tied to little mini-verses, and sometimes it migrates out of the chorus and into the verse. It’s just a continual iteration and play.
Kendrick and Paul are never happy to just repeat themselves, no matter how thoroughly they’ve nailed it. And that’s why I’m more tolerant of their tics, blind spots, and failings of politics or self-consciousness, than I am for someone like Common. Because they’re actually artists, and much closer to the kind of artist or craftsman that I would like to be.