Trying to get hip-hop performers to come down here and entertain their audience -- however limited it may be -- is just as frustrating. Luckily, when Macy Gray, the neo-soul It Girl, comes to town this Sunday, she will bring along a couple of true hip-hop artists in her traveling showcase: East Coast MC Common and multicultural trio Black Eyed Peas. Both Common and the Peas are men of action. They don't have time for flashiness or shallow extravagance. They know listeners are losing sight of what's important in rap and hip-hop, and it's their job to remind them -- in the funkiest way possible.
Common is becoming hip-hop's brightest-shining brotha. When his latest album, Like Water for Chocolate (MCA), was released earlier this year, the Chicago-born rapper scored a heavy-rotation hit with the single "The Light." Romantically linked to Erykah Badu, he is nestled in the bosom of the hip-hop soul community. But lately Common has been getting the wrong kind of publicity.
In a recent "Gay Hollywood" issue of Entertainment Weekly, the magazine labeled Common, DMX and Eminem as the rappers most guilty of spouting homophobic lyrics. It is true that Common uses a couple of unnecessary epithets on the album, but he doesn't go after the gay community like his foam-mouthed colleagues. Instead, he chooses to deflate the egos of rival MCs with them. On "Dooinit," which sounds like an all-out tirade against Will Smith ("That jiggy shit is over / The war is on"), Common pulls out the line "In a circle of faggots / Your name is mentioned." You could argue that the language itself, regardless of the context, is a slur, but you can't ignore the context here: Common uses the language to attack nongays.
With that noted, Like Water for Chocolate is a fascinating album because it aesthetically evolves as it progresses. It begins as an aggressive battle, with Common calling out his rivals by any means necessary on tracks like "Heat" and "Dooinit." But on later tracks, Common becomes introspective, while summoning up some substantial verbalizing. ("Who say the jam is "Money, Cash, Hoes' / I went to bashful to asshole to international / Lover of self," he says on "Nag Champa.")
It helps that on this 16-track metamorphosis Common surrounds himself with some of the most eclectic artists working in black music today. Overseen by Roots drummer Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson, Chocolate is more like a finely polished hip-hop soul album. Badu is nowhere to be found, but Jill Scott sings on one track. So does Afrobeat artist Femi Kuti. Mos Def and the Roots' Black Thought and Rahzel join Common for some rap verses. D'Angelo lays down keyboards on a few tracks, while trumpeter Roy Hargrove blows his horn on others. DJ Premier and the X-ecutioners' Mista Sinista provide scratches and cuts. Chocolate catches you off guard so many times and on so many levels. It also cements Common's status as an MC too potent and too talented to ignore.
The Black Eyed Peas are three men who catch their listeners off guard as well. Those who were expecting some flinty, elitist beats and rhymes on BEP's underrated debut album, 1998's Behind the Front (Interscope), were surprised to find that these guys -- Will.I.Am, Apl.de.Ap and Taboo -- crackled with intense rhythmic energy. They were all about the groove then, and they continue to follow that muse on their recently released sophomore album, Bridging the Gap (Interscope).
The trio goes for the same vibe that De La Soul captures on its Art Official Intelligence album: The guys want you to feel their music, but they also want you to hear their message. Their first single off Gap, "Weekends," featuring trip-hop vocalist Esthero, continues in the party-all-night, think-all-day philosophy that they espoused with their first single from Front, the vibrant "Joints & Jam." And much like Common, they take offense to rappers who speak loudly but have nothing to say. (A word of advice from "Get Original": "You might as well turn in your mike / And start collecting dollars at the turnpike.")
With Will and Apl also working the control board (along with contributions from Wyclef Jean, DJ Premier and Rhett Lawrence), Gap is as loose and rowdy as most house party records, but you better not call it nonsense. What these boys lay on the table is the kind of clever, original roof-blowing verbal and musical pyrotechnics that other rappers are too damn "hard" to partake in.
The hip-hop purity of Common and Black Eyed Peas is much needed in this town. We praise and idolize the rappers who got the fancy rides, the shiny ice, the booty-shaking hoes and the syrup to knock them out for a decade. But what about the brothas who ain't got the rides, huh? What about the ones who ain't got the ice on their wrists and the hoes shaking their asses? What about the ones who ain't got drank and have to get fucked up the old-fashioned way, by dancing and getting tired? All they have is a mike and their wits. And when you think about it, isn't that all you need?