Common, Maya Angelou, And Transcending Categories In Hip-Hop

My friend Rhome Anderson has an intriguing piece up on the Root about Common’s latest dilemma. The rapper, who’s struggled to reconcile his conscious and club-friendly sides, asked Maya Angelou to contribute a verse to a song on his new album. And unshockingly, the doyenne was apparently distressed by the use of the word “nigger” in the song, though she released a statement late yesterday explaining that “I will not be divided from Common. By anybody’s imagination, he is brilliant and even genius, maybe…But certainly smarter than us to know that he’s in process…It may even take two or three weeks, or a month. But I’m not going to be separated from him.” Rhome points out that absorbing Angelou into a semi-predictable declaration-of-greatnesss banger is part of a larger challenge:

Why can’t a reasonable individual enjoy both books and booty — or spiritual pursuits and pursuit of spirits — and channel them into his or her music? In a post-Outkast-and-Kanye West world, that tired question shouldn’t have to be asked anymore. But In the case of The Dreamer/The Believer, the integration isn’t working. Common doesn’t sound as if he’s sharing the naturally variant facets of who he is; he sounds like he’s trying too hard to convince the listener of their plausibility.

Earlier, Common regularly mixed raw couplets with his thoughtful ones and rarely struck an awkward note, at least not until a pair of unfortunate clunkers that he delivered on Kid Cudi’s 2009 “Make Her Say,” when he instructs a sexual conquest to “get up on this conscious d–k.” Today Common is struggling more acutely with topical tone deafness.

Now it’s true that no matter the genre, we tend to see artists in terms of their key concerns, whether it’s Cameron Crowe’s Manic Visionary Dream Boys, Roman Polanski’s obsession with claustrophobic spaces, Neal Stephenson’s tech geniuses, Neil Gaiman’s deities, Michael Chabon’s angsty Jews. But we also tend to appreciate artists who can successfully jump genres or obsessions. We like Joan Didion because she can do boardrooms and squats and murder scenes and her own husband’s death. If someone tries to make that leap and fails, it’s one thing, but if they can do it successfully, that would seem to be praiseworthy rather than an identity crisis.

I also wonder if the perceived kerfuffle between Angelou and Common has anything to do with shifting norms in hip-hop. I’m not any sort of expert on how this works behind the scenes, and would welcome input if anyone out there wants to offer it. But is the sense when Angelou does a guest verse, or Rihanna shows up to sing the hook on “All of the Lights” that they have input in the overall shape of the song? Or is it just a matter of the main rapper engineering rather than searching for the perfect sample? I’ve always been interested in whether the replacement of samples of women’s voices with women singing hooks specific to new songs gave women any more actual voice in the production of individual tracks.