Rap songs from soundtracks usually blow. There are notable exceptions, sure, but as far as general rules go, this one is pretty safe. Another personal hip-hop rule of mine is that will.i.am songs rarely wind up in my "favorites" folder on iTunes.
Imagine my surprise then that the first will.i.am track of recent vintage that I really like comes in the form of a soundtrack cut. This unlikely triumph is "I Have a Dream," the newest song from Common, the guy that put Chicago on the map long before Kayne, Lupe, Rhymefest, and Kidz N The Hall made the Windy City an industry hotspot.
"I Have a Dream" comes from the upcoming film Freedom Writers, which at first glance appears to be nothing but the latest Great White Hope movie about a fresh-faced teacher (Hillary Swank) braving the trials and tribulations of the inner city in an effort to reach the disadvantaged youth of America. It turns out this movie might actually be more likely to reinvent the genre than imitate films like Dangerous Minds and Sunset Park. Based the book The Freedom Writers Diary, which tells the true story of author Erin Gruwell and the way she taught her students to use writing in order to inspire change, there is at least an outside chance that this movie will be pretty good.
The track "I Have a Dream" has all the makings of the "inspirational part of the movie where everyone rallies and starts to make a difference" theme song, but strictly as a hip-hop release, it holds up pretty well. Will.i.am displays an alarming level of subtlety (I did a double-take on the production credit) and his only blatant showoff stunt is the intercut of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech, which is obvious and a little cheesy, but certainly thematic. The beat itself moves along with a nice pace and simple keyboards stand out and create a very melodic sound. The chorus isn't great, with will.i.am crooning something pretty generic over the same beat as the verse. All in all, the production here is somewhere between "cheesy" and "average," but honestly, I can live with that when a member of the Black Eyed Peas is involved.
It is Common that makes this track something worth listening to. Will.i.am's fingerprints are all over the chorus and the MLK vocals, but the producer's greatest gift to this song is staying out of Common's way for 32 bars. The guy who invented social conscious rap as a genre is electrifying here, easily moving within the beat while delivering complex lines loaded with commentary and snappy rhyme schemes. Starting with the opening lines of "In search of brighter days/I write through the maze of the madness/struggle is my address/where pain and crack lives," Common quickly establishes an environment and then pushes through to discuss how his own dreams persist.
In the second verse, one of the industry's leaders questions the role of hip-hop as a community influence and in the process demands more out of himself. If this sounds familiar, that is probably because it is. Common has gone down this road before, most notably on "The Light" off his 2000 release Like Water for Chocolate. However, that doesn't change the message or the flawless way it is delivered this time around. This 16 is damn near perfect.
This song as a whole certainly isn't perfect. It is a little too sunny, a little too "Hollywood Movie" (which makes sense, considering its purpose). And the beat isn't great and, well, neither is the chorus. But you know what? Common is. And will.i.am stays out of the way long enough to let the legendary rapper shine, which is all anyone really needs to do.
The Score: 8.5/10.