By Neil Drumming
Updated July 27, 2007 at 04:00 AM EDT
Gregory Scaffidi

Shortly after batty Don Imus blamed African-American culture for filling his grizzled head with slurs, Oprah invited four black men from the music industry onto her show to respond to the shock jock’s claim. Common, the only recording artist on the panel, dutifully answered for the sins of more controversial rappers, even apologizing to a firing squad of black female college students for hip-hop’s rampant misogyny. You gotta love him for trying to play the good guy, but his placating only defused the fireworks — and revelations — that could have emerged from a more contentious discourse.

Thankfully, on his seventh LP, Finding Forever, the Chicago-bred MC worries less about being polite than rocking the mic. His wit goes playfully unchastened on ”Southside,” as he trades egotism with BFF Kanye West, as well as on ”Start the Show,” where he lashes at thug rappers, ”You was better as a drug dealer.” And the aforementioned students may reappraise his on-air apology — ”for the disrespect that does come from the mouths of men to women” — once they get a load of his gigolo posturing on ”So Far to Go,” produced by J Dilla (R.I.P.) and featuring long-MIA lothario D’Angelo. Over a crackling Isley Brothers splice job, Common woos, ”Sweetheart, you know that you’re the most/Important, at least on the West Coast.”

Common’s reputation as a socially conscious rapper has always seemed a little undeserved. His strengths lie in honest observation and clever wordplay, not political correctness. On ”The People,” a thematic sequel to his last CD’s cinematic street anthem ”The Corner,” he forsakes racial sensitivity for biting subjectivity, lamenting that while black people struggle economically, ”white folk focus on dogs and yoga.” On the album’s high point — the shimmering, propulsive ”Drivin’ Me Wild,” featuring impish U.K. breakout Lily Allen — Common deftly dissects a troubled woman’s neuroses: ”Spin class at the gym, striptease on the pole,” he raps. ”She was so obsessed with her body and clothes/To every party she goes, trying hard to be chose/They say it’s hard for a pimp but extra hard for these —.” Nope, he doesn’t go there. But dropping the hot-button epithet (while understandable in a post-Imus climate) doesn’t so much temper the sentiment as soften a perfect punchline.

But where Common occasionally plays it safe, Kanye West — who produced nine of Forever‘s 12 tracks — never relents. The album is both lush and gritty, integrating awkwardly hacked samples, rowdy percussion, and sweet backing vocals from neo-soul hipsters like Dwele (Slum Village) and Bilal (Erykah Badu, Jill Scott). With that kind of muscle, Common need not worry about watching his mouth. B+
Download This: ”Drivin’ Me Wild”

+ Common, who jokes about his SAG card on Forever‘s ”Break My Heart,” has roles in three upcoming films, including American Gangster, starring Denzel Washington, and the comic-book adaptation Wanted, with Angelina Jolie.