House of Blues, 2/27

Last summer, when Common released Be (GOOD/Geffen), I wrote in my blog that the album was causing a communal feminist boner across the land–his dynamic, self-actualized version of masculinity was something unseen in popular hip-hop, where Young Jeezy saying “I’m so emotional / I love my Glock” passes for soul-searching. In the Twin Cities City Pages I even wrote that one of the disc’s better singles, “Faithful”–basically an extended metaphor comparing monogamy to religious faith–“conflates liberation theology and adult male reckoning.” Be affirmed the possibility of introspection, reconciliation, and self-awareness in hip-hop, even more so than Common’s previous albums–suddenly he was playing Paul to Kanye’s Jesus, comporting himself like a fresh convert eager to show the world the new man he’d become. It gave me hope that hip-hop still contained the seeds of its own salvation, and that the whole genre wasn’t necessarily going to degenerate into an every-man-for-himself apocalypse of late-stage capitalism and unrepentant machismo.

But just a few minutes into the first show of Common’s recent three-night stint at House of Blues, I was already debating who was the bigger sucker: him, for imagining that his doting audience wouldn’t rebel at the wackness he was perpetrating, or me, for believing in him in the first place.

For all his sweet rhymes and all the serious questions he asks himself–what does it mean to be a man, what does it mean to be a rapper–Common lost me as soon as he pulled a woman out of the crowd to use as a prop. At hip-hop shows it’s fairly standard to get some ladies up onstage for a bit of mutual grinding, but Common’s stunt–while a lot tamer in some ways–was also way more fucked-up. It’s one thing for a performer to flirt with a stranger, to dance close with her and serenade her–she’s Everygirl, standing in for the One, and maybe she’ll even enjoy the role. But it’s another thing entirely to then set her on a stool and act like you’re about to finger her in front of 1,300 paid admissions, stopping your cupped hand two or three inches from her pussy while she looks embarrassed and stares at the ground. Hell, if you’ve gone that far, you might as well stand her up, turn her around, and pretend-hump her from behind while your DJ plays R. Kelly’s “Bump n’ Grind.”

The rest of the show didn’t do nearly enough to redeem that performance. Common came onstage looking dapper in cords and a sweater vest, bounding over the monitors with cartoonish energy. For most of the show he rapped almost anxiously, landing ahead of the beat, backed by a DJ (overutilized) and a live drummer and keyboardist (underutilized). He started with his hit “Go,” made another stop at “Faithful,” and segued into a couple old chestnuts like Dre and Snoop’s “Nuthin’ but a G Thang.” During a medley the DJ played “Love of My Life” by Common’s ex Erykah Badu, and Common stood motionless in the spotlight for almost an entire chorus, his arms folded, his legs apart, his head turned toward one shoulder so he could cast his gaze upon the crowd–the classic Run-DMC B-boy stance. You could almost hear him thinking, “Check this shit out. This song is about me.” By the time the medley was over the DJ couldn’t even get the crowd hyped with “It Takes Two,” which is a sign of dire, dire trouble. I’m not even going to talk about Common’s marginal breakdancing or his apparent need to play the piano.

To top it off, his between-song banter–usually the best way for an artist to bond with a crowd–sounded stiff and rote, like he needed every ounce of his concentration to get it out. Before “Faithful” he established the theme he’d riff on for the rest of the night: as a man you try to stay true to your girl, your wifey, or your wife, but then when you go to a basement party and you get up around other girls who are smelling good, well, it’s a hopeless case. He pointed out that it’d be a lot simpler for men to avoid cheating if there weren’t Other Women willing to sleep with them. “I ain’t sayin’ it’s right,” he said, “but . . . some of you ladies gotta get your shit together.” I wonder if he even realized he was wrecking his own metaphor–since when is God obligated to accept bizarre rationalizations when believers backslide? If he did, it didn’t keep him from speaking on the Almighty’s behalf. He insisted that his five Grammy nominations were how God let him know he was doing the right thing and said that “Hurricane Katrina was God’s way of getting people to open their doors to strangers.” Yeah, try telling that to the Ninth Ward.

What’s painfully clear is that the new man Common sees in himself has about as much overlap with reality as the perfect superfreaky girl he raps about on “Go.” He wants to be a player for the men, sensitacho for the ladies, conscious for those that care, a superstar for the hometown headz–but by trying to appeal to every side he comes off as a run-of-the-mill panderer instead of a multifaceted artist. It might help if he threw himself into even one role with real conviction, but he doesn’t. We’re left holding onto our fantasies about what he might’ve been–and feeling taken for having decided to care in the first place.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.