Review Summary: An imitative, soulful mess. Fans will probably forget this is a Common album by the third or fourth track and it’s probably for the better.
It's pretty hard to come into this album without expectations. Common is an MC through and through; he's well respected, fairly renowned and, according to Gap, mildly fashionable. He solidified his place at the top of the Chicago hip-hop scene with Resurrection, Like Water for Chocolate and 2005's Be and, well, I'm sad to say it might be the end of an era.
For those who don't know, Finding Forever is a highly lauded effort. The only problem is it's highly lauded by producer, douchebag and fellow Chicago-native Kanye West. West, who also had a heavy hand in Be, has made no effort to subdue the hype. Not only did he guarantee a Grammy, he also touted his own chops by saying he'd "pay tribute to Dilla" and that he'd try to "bring back a really soulful feel". Correct me if I'm wrong, but hasn't he made a career off that? While you could easily assume that most fans of Kanye are unaware of his influences, true hip-hop heads recognize that Mr. West has made a career in ripping off Pete Rock, DJ Premier and J Dilla. Yes, believe it or not, Kanye wasn't the first to alter the pitch on a Nina Simone track.
Somewhere down the line, I think Kanye forgot he was working on a Common album.
Maybe it's his ego, or maybe he had something to prove, but regardless, the production on Finding Forever is weighty, distracting and, to add insult to injury, pretty atrocious. Not only is Mr. West virtually omnipresent on the production front, but he makes himself known by appearing unannounced throughout the course of the album.
"Start the Show" has West playing ringmaster, introducing the album as if it were his own, a theme consistently found on the disc. Midway through the track Common finally comes in, sounding restless and mostly uninterested, at least at first. Common's laid-back, "sounds sort of like he has a cold" flow is instantly recognizable and definitely at par with his past work, but sadly it's almost instantly drowned out by loud, poorly placed instrumentation.
Lead single "The People" is dominated by organs, shouts and actually starts off fairly promising. Common comes in fairly audible, but almost at the very instant he calls Kanye "the new Premo", what feels like an endless sea of samples kick in along with some intense frustration. As Common continually builds off the "oh" sound, often jumping back to "my daughter found Nemo/ I found the new Premo", soulful quips play yin to his yang. In short, "The People" is an alright track that's more than indicative of all the faults found on the album.
When Kanye's at the helm, Finding Forever is an overcomplicated mess. Common said that with this disc he'd "just rap", but the art is lost because you're hard pressed to actually notice his presence. Luckily, three of the eleven (discounting the intro) tracks on the album were produced by some other artists and, while they definitely fit into the soulful sound found on the album, they make a point of highlighting Common rather than overshadowing him.
The Devo Springsteen produced "Misunderstood" plays with Nina Simone's rendition of "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" by adding bluesy guitar licks and all the while allowing the focus to remain on Common. "So Far to Go" is an obvious highlight because in the end it's just three old-pals kickin' it. Produced by the late J Dilla and featuring D'Angelo, the track has three of the stronger Soulquarians at the top of their game. Conveniently enough, "The Game" is possibly the only other track I'd recommend. Produced by West and featuring DJ Premier's scratches, "The Game" has a real 90s vibe and while it's bloated with samples, Common spits lines like "Make cuts and got gashes, scratches over third eyelashes/Punchlines are like jab pits to rappers" enthusiastically.
As "The Game" so bluntly puts it, you've got to be in it to win it. Obviously, some people took that to heart and as a result Finding Forever comes off sounding like everyone behind it was trying way too hard. While it's obvious Common & co. are dealing with the loss of Dilla, I'd take the production as an insult more than a tribute; sure, it's reminiscent of Dilla but when you hear the track the late producer had his hand in you realize just how contrived it actually is.
The disc is hook laden but the hooks are bland. The rapping is heartfelt but forgettable and, "So Far To Go", easily the highlight of the album, is actually a track of J Dilla's posthumous The Shining. There's a lot of talk about living forever through music on the disc, and you have to wonder why that idea wasn't followed more rigorously. Remember those who have fallen by paying respect to their craft, not by vehemently ripping it off. Fans will probably forget this is a Common album by the third or fourth track and it's probably for the better.
Pardon me, but I'm going to go listen to "I Used to Love H.E.R" and cry a little.