With 2002's Electric Circus, Common rocketed deliriously into the outer limits of sonic experimentation, at least as far as major-label hip-hop is concerned. On 2005's Be, he returned triumphantly to Earth with a sound as intimate and soothing as a warm bath after a hard day's work. Now comes Finding Forever, another Kanye West-engineered opus that picks up exactly where Be left off. It feels less like a sequel than an extension of Be, though the uncanny resemblance is both a major strength and its biggest weakness. Forever boasts nearly all of Be's homey virtues: It's tight, cohesive, devoid of filler, refreshingly brisk (at 50 minutes long), and sonically and lyrically focused. In an age of production-by-committee and double-digit guest rosters, it's the work of one MC and one producer (Kanye West) blessed with rare chemistry and a strong mutual vision.
Yet Forever never hits Be's transcendent heights. The standout track "Forever Begins" follows the blueprint of Be's "It's Your World (Pts. 1 & 2)"—epic length and feel, spoken-word interlude by Common's dad, classy sample—closely enough to suffer by comparison. Beyond an overwhelming sense of déjà vu, Forever's biggest weakness is Common's questionable return to the pop-culture punchlines of his earliest work. All too often, those cross the line separating playfully loose from corny: Common is too gifted a poet to waste his time with Lance Bass gay jokes, or timeless Break-Up references. It's nice to hear DJ Premier's signature scratching on "The Game," but Forever could benefit from more sonic curveballs. Common and West have found a style that works, commercially and creatively. That makes it the perfect time to start taking more risks.