Story by Todd Williams
Images by Michael Melendy for Steed Media Service
Hip-hop heads, (or at least the late twenty-to-thirtysomethings) can remember in the early 1990s, a little-noticed album by a clever young rhyme-sayer from Chicago. The album was Can I Borrow A Dollar?, and the MC was 20-year-old Lonnie Rashid Lynn, Jr. aka Common Sense (as he was known at the time). Possessed of an unorthodox flow and a better-than-the-average-rapper wit and focus, Common’s debut, though it was a quality album, wasn’t that much of an anomaly in 1992. Dropping during the mini alternative-rap boom of 1991-1993, (which saw the debuts of Pharcyde, Arrested Development, Digable Planets, Souls of Mischief and several more high-profile contributors to the genre), Common’s first release just got lost in the shuffle. Each subsequent release saw his stature grow in hip-hop’s fabled underground scene, but commercial success was scant: only 2000s Like Water for Chocolate and 2005s Be have gone gold, despite eight Grammy nominations and one win – for “Love of My Life (Ode to Hip- Hop),” his 2003 duet with his then-girlfriend, soul singer Erykah Badu. After 2003s Electric Circus, where Common tried on electro and alt-rock sounds with limited success, he joined forces with that other Chicago emcee, Kanye West, who, if you didn’t know, also happens to be one of the hottest producers on the planet.
“Kanye and I – our synergy stems from our love [of] music,” Common says about his friend and collaborator. “[From] what we wanna do as people in this world.”
Common also found a musical soulmate in J Dilla; a fellow Midwestern hip-hop head who was one of the MC’s closest friends until his 2006 death from lupus nephritis. With West, Common has forged a similar bond. Chi-Town’s dynamic duo has strong musical roots and their artistic ambition is noble and sincere. “It’s a spiritual thing, too,” Common adds. “We want to make changes and help people. [We want to] put out music that means something and will be here throughout time.”
And sharing the same area code gives the two a bond that the veteran MC relishes. When Common is paired with a producer that he truly connects with, (like Pete Rock or the late, great J Dilla), he truly soars as an MC and as an artist. “We get in there and we both have a drive – we got that Chicago connection, [so] we challenge each other. That’s one of my good friends, it’s all love. He can take me to the highest level and I can take him to the highest level.”
That ‘highest level’ means different things for Common than it may for the average rapper. Despite his somewhat limited chart success, Common has parlayed those two gold records and infinite pop culture respect and panache into an endorsement deal with GAP stores and, in 2007, two very high profile movie roles; one in the shoot-’em-up action flick Smokin’ Aces and, later in the year, the hard-boiled crime drama American Gangster opposite Oscar® winners Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe. Common stars as Turner Lucas, brother to drug lord Frank Lucas as portrayed by Denzel Washington.
He told Uptown magazine in June about how harrowing it was sharing the stage with a luminary of Washington’s caliber. “I was nervous the days going into [it],” he said. “But then once you get on it, you’re just in that world. You have to get over the fact that it’s Denzel and start saying, ‘This is my brother.’ ” Such apprehension is understandable, considering that Common’s first film role just left theaters in the spring and he’s already sharing the screen with cinematic royalty.
His first love is still beats and rhymes, despite his ever-growing Hollywood résumé. His latest album, Finding Forever, already has tremendous buzz on the strength of the fiery first single, “The People.” Continuing on the critical and relative commercial success of Be, his last collaboration with West; . Forever promises to find the ever-pensive wordsmith looking at the state of the art form that he’s grown up with and the state of his world, in general. Common has always worn his heart on his sleeve as an artist, and hiphop itself is often one of his favorite subjects. His signature song is still the 1994 classic “I Used to Love H.E.R.,” an earnest extended metaphor that juxtaposes Common’s love for hip-hop with the love that a man would have for an around-the-way-girl that he grew up with. He has also never been afraid to put himself and his personal experiences on record with an almostpainful honesty: 1997’s “Retrospective for Life” was a diary entry about his girlfriend deciding to keep their child. Whether or not “. Life” could be considered a pro-life anthem depends on your politics, but what is not debatable is that Common has earned his reputation as the most introspective rapper in the game. Finding Forever more than continues that tradition. “Finding Forever [is] that true, soulful hip-hop,” he says excitedly. “A lot of it is produced by Kanye – he executive produced it [and] J Dilla did a track on it. I think [it’s] gonna be that hip-hop that you want – what [people] have been yearning for. It’s conscious and it feels good.”
As someone who’s love for the genre has been well documented, Common isn’t as critical of the current state of the music as some might believe. Never one to dwell on negativity, he’s strong in his belief that the music – like everything – moves in cycles. “Hip-hop is like any other genre, or art form, or person – it goes through changes,” he says. “It evolves [and] goes through good days, bad days, or whatever.” Popular music has consistently milked itself dry at some point or another, and soon enough, new sounds and ideas come to the forefront. “[Rap music] may have been going through a phase where it wasn’t as creative or whatever, but that’s part of the process of getting to a better place,” he continues. “Everything changes. I’m looking at hip-hop as something that’s going to be here – it’s [already] been here for so many years. It’s always been an important voice, so I feel that hip-hop is headed into the future doing something positive and becoming more balanced.”
Common has literally grown up in the game. As snap dances (and artists) seem to fall out of the sky and disappear within a matter of months, he’s the rare rapper with a decade-plus career. Recently in New Orleans, he shared the stage with fellow hip-hop icon Chuck D. and others on a panel discussing the state of the young black male. A frequent visitor to New Orleans, Common couldn’t help but ponder the resilience of the people in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. “I always felt like N.O. had this spirit around it, something soulful and strong,” he says. “To be able and come back and see that we’re working on rebuilding, is good.” Pointing the way to that positive future he feels that hiphop has in store, the rapper from the Chi is more than willing to start the healing in the Crescent City. “It’s great to be amongst the people and see what they need and see how what we can do to contribute, and if there’s any way that we can contribute as people and artists, we will. We’re going to help rebuild.”