By Daniel Kohn
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In his continuing crusade against hip-hop, Fox News polemicist Bill O'Reilly recently went on the attack against NYC rapper Nas. He tagged the Queensbridge MC a "gangster rapper" and claimed that by performing at a benefit for Virginia Tech victims, Nas was "insulting the murder victims." Affecting moral outrage, the paunchy conservative blowhard trotted out an old gun charge against the rapper and cited a few out-of-context lyrics such as the chorus to "Got Yourself a Gun" that samples the Sopranostheme song, making us wonder if O'Reilly is going to badger James Gandolfini the next time he does something for charity. Understanding that the noisome provisions of free speech protects artists such as Nas, he next took aim at those who enable the First Amendment by dubbing Dr. Charles Steiger, the Virginia Tech president, a "coward" and demanding he be immediately fired.
Of course, O'Reilly conveniently overlooks the fact that Nas' lyrics track the full arch of violence, chronicling everything from the initial sparks of aggression to the bullet's trajectory before zooming out to examine how the outlying lives, homes and communities are subsequently affected.
It's doubtful that O'Reilly, his millions of listeners and viewers, and the legions of wannabes who infect our airwaves have ever taken the time to actually listen to rap lyrics. If they had, they'd notice a complex dialogue on issues of race, violence and class. Nowhere is this important conversation more evident than in the music of Common.
The Chicago MC got his start more than a decade ago. In his early lyrics, he championed a transformation in hip-hop from the bling and gun blast of Bad Boy/Death Row-era hip-hop to a more morally tenable and socially conscious mutation of the art. And while Common still gives lip service to the ideas and ideals of the mid-'90s boho set on his new album, Finding Forever, those songs are the weakest of the set. On "The People," for example, Common sounds trite and noncommittal as he champions the unspecified masses who hunger for freedom, truth and Obama.
But as with most who speak of the nobility of "the people," when Common takes a closer look at individual lives, he's far more cynical. The two main characters in "Drivin' Me Wild" (a delectable bit of post-Gorillaz electro anchored by Lily Allen's effervescent hook) are driven by their impulses and delusions. The beautiful "Misunderstood," meanwhile, captions a typically smoky Nina Simone snippet between the production's sweeping, melancholic soul and features the Chi-town rapper tracking the spiritual disillusionment of a hustler and a stripper.
What's wonderful about these songs is that Common is able to link the public and the private—the songs' characters have problems that speak to the larger struggle, enabling Common to comment on social problems without seeming didactic. The songs' inhabitants search for meaning, but more often than not find that their dreams lead them astray.
Of course, the ultimate fallen dream for black America is the idea of equality, and Common eloquently speaks on that in the excellent "U Black, Maybe." He claims that "a white man's yes is a black man's maybe," but unlike in previous generations, the enemy is as likely to wear a BAPE hoodie as a KKK hood. He illustrates this by chronicling the rise and fall of a basketball player who is gunned down by jealous friends, concluding the song with a spoken-word outro: "We talk about situations of people of color, and because you are that color, you endure obstacles and opposition, and not all the time from other nationalities, sometimes it comes from your kind, or maybe even your own mind."
It's doubtful any of Finding Forever's insight would change the Right's estimation of hip-hop. Subtlety, complexity and context are lost when you're waging a race war. And for those who traffic in fear and innuendo, thoughtful rappers such as Common and Nas are just angry black men talking up guns, hos and bitches. These conservative pundits aren't attacking obscenity in hip-hop; they're targeting hip-hop. Take nothing for granted.