Early in the '00s, when progressive rap ensembles like OutKast and the Roots ruminated on hip-hop's post-millennial direction, they produced records in an avant-garde vein purposely intended to evolve the music. Most of the eclectic efforts (particularly Phrenology and Stankonia) emerging from these noble intentions actually succeeded, quiet as kept. What like-minded MCs such as Q-Tip and Cee-Lo didn't figure was: Just 'cause you evolve the beats doesn't mean you evolve the palate of the audience. Common's Electric Circus got unfairly tagged as some bastard child of the Chi-town microphone controller's 2002 relationship with our own Rasta-style flower child Erykah Badu. Whatever the merits of both the record and the criticism, a return to more populist boom-bap was inevitable for the man-of-the-people MC.

At least Badu gave Mr. Nice Guy a backstory and a (supposed) nadir to bounce back from. Finding Forever finds Kanye West serving up frenetic percussive upgrades to his previous concept of the ideal Common album, 2005's Be. ('Ye produced nine tracks on both albums.) Forever packs enough of their punchy musical connection to justify ranking it superior even to Be, already a classic in certain circles. "Start the Show," "The People" and "Drive Me Wild" front-load the album with super-high quality, causing the 12-song disc to crest a bit early.

Interviewing Common for a profile years back, I caught Bowling for Columbine with the MC, and he fell asleep—which speaks volumes for the overwrought pretensions of (self-) conscious tracks like "Black Maybe." Most of the hip-hop nation would rather hear homeboy spit rhymes around a D'Angelo hook atop a chopped-up Isley Brothers sample—as on the so-so obligatory ladies' come-on "So Far to Go"—than to indulge in sonic experimentation with Stereolab, as he did on Electric Circus. With Forever, Common delivers the expected—political, lover-man and battle rhymes told with wit and complexity over street-commercial beats—in spades.

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Miles Marshall Lewis