With his new album Be, The Chicago-born rapper makes a play for mainstream acceptance-on his terms
Long before Kanye West was in every eight-year-old's MP3 player, Chicago hip-hop was defined and owned by another rapper. Since his 1992 debut, Common, born Lonnie Rashied Lynn, delivered the sound of Chicago to a genre that had always seemed permanently parked on the Coasts. Over five albums, several of which easily rank among hip-hop's best, Common made being spiritual, bohemian and gangsta all seem like part of the same pie.
But how the times have changed. With just one album, College Dropout, West brought home a Grammy and racked up multiplatinum sales, while Common's last album, the antitraditional Electric Circus, tanked, selling only 300,000 copies.
Instead of starting a beef with the man who stole the Second City hip-hop crown from him, Common, who plays House of Blues Wednesday 1 and June 2, inked a deal with West's GOOD music imprint and enlisted West to produce nine of the 11 tracks on Be, his first album to drop in three years.
It's unquestionably Common's most radio-friendly effort to date, chock-full of his most unhinged reflections yet, bolstered by West's trademark soaring soul samples. But can the man still known by most as Erykah Badu's Rapper Boyfriend No. 2 (Andre 3000 of OutKast was No. 1) finally achieve commercial success?
For most of his time in Chicago, commercial indifference (something many hip-hop artists here are used to) was just a fact of life. Born at 89th Street and Bennett Avenue on the South Side, Common was introduced to hip-hop culture through the break-dancing scene in his neighborhood, but family trips to Cincinnati—where he drew inspiration from a local hip-hop act—whetted his appetite for rapping. In the seventh grade, he started writing down his rhymes and working with Dion Wilson, his friend since fourth grade and Luther South classmate, later known as hip-hop producer NO I.D.
Because of his rare and highly coveted beat-making skills, NO I.D. quickly found willing apprentices. One of them, four years Common's junior, was not afraid to make his presence known. "He was always talking a lot of stuff," Common recalls of his interactions in high school with a young West. "He always would play you beats and rap and would want to be heard. He would speak his mind.... But more than anything, it's just that confidence and drive he had that was beyond all of ours."
After completing high school and a year at Florida A&M University, Common dropped out, returned home and signed to the fledgling independent Relativity Records, ultimately creating a trio of albums with NO I.D. and a small coterie of local producers. Resurrection, the second of those three, yielded a single, "I Used to Love H.E.R.," a breakout hit in which he decried hip-hop's commercial exploits.
Weaving an elaborate and deft metaphor describing hip-hop as an ex-girlfriend gone astray, the track was equally important for its cultural critique: Hip-hop in 1994 was changing in a rapid, not altogether welcome fashion.
"What's tired about rap is the redundancy," Common says. "Everything is all, 'I'm getting my money, I'm getting my money.' I understand that we all want money, [but] this is an art form, too. When you create from that place, it ain't gon' never have the feeling that you would get out of Stevie Wonder's work or Joni Mitchell's work."
But Common's follow-up album to Resurrection, 1997's One Day It'll All Make Sense, complete with a single featuring Lauryn Hill, didn't sell as well as he thought it should. Feeling he had hit a Midwest glass ceiling, he took a step he had balked at for years and moved to the hip-hop industry's epicenter, New York City, where he still resides today.
Although the move elicited cries of "sell out" in Chicago's hip-hop community—a community he helped build—Common doesn't regret it. "People from all over the world come to display their art [in New York] and you get inspired," he says. "The mentality is so much out of the box because it's such a melting pot of people. 'Crazy' is accepted in New York—'crazy' is almost the norm in New York."
What resulted was Common's fourth and most successful album to date, 2000's Like Water for Chocolate, which sold 750,000 copies and earned him a Grammy nomination for "The Light," a love song to then-girlfriend Badu. Emboldened by his success, Common holed up with eccentrics like the Roots's ?uestlove, Zap Mama and Stereolab in Jimi Hendrix's Electric Lady Studios to record a new album. He confounded fans and critics alike with the almost anti–hip-hop left turn of 2002's Electric Circus.
Circus was quirky and experimental where previous efforts had a raw, traditional hip-hop flavor. The ensuing reaction led to a disappointing 294,000 copies sold, and cemented Common's reputation as the torch bearer of conscious hip-hop, a title he'd unwittingly begun to earn with "I Used To Love H.E.R."
Common speaks with urgency of the missed opportunities of Circus. "I don't think that rap should be only 'conscious' music. Rap should be conscious—but it should also be expressions of sexuality, expressions of struggle on the street, expressions of imagination, expressions of gangsta mentality, because all that is part of who we are."
In Be, Common may have finally achieved the aesthetic balance he's been shooting for. The Jay Dee–produced "Love Is..." simply sparkles ("You know what love is / Even found it on the ground where thugs live") while "Go!," featuring John Mayer, relives an X-rated encounter in all its sweaty details. Be also marks the first time since One Day that he hasn't shied away from including Windy City references and observations on an album—the stories of "Stony Island and Cottage Grove."
Chicagoans can decide for themselves if the updated Common's latest change is for the better when he plays the House of Blues, joined, most likely, by keyboardist Omar Edwards and DJ Dummy, both holdovers from A Black Girl Named Becky, his Electric Circus live band. "I want to be on the crossover stations," Common says of the ambition that West has lit within him. "You listen to [Marvin Gaye's] What's Going On, one of the most incredible, pure [soul] albums ever, but it became pop. I been in grocery stores when that album is on, [and] you got black people, white people, Asian people all humming or singing to it. That's what music is supposed to do."
Be was released on May 24. Common plays the House of Blues Wednesday 1 and June 2. He'll appear at Virgin Megastore June 2.