Just plain Common sense


February 5, 2006


With his sixth album, "Be" (2005), Chicago rapper Common assured his standing as one of the greatest talents hip-hop has produced, claiming four Grammy nominations, selling almost 750,000 copies and hitting new heights by collaborating with another local talent, producer Kanye West.

But "Be" is not Common's first masterpiece or the first time his heartfelt lyrics and impressive flow have inspired his musical collaborators to outdo themselves. In fact, in a career that is far from over, his 2000 album, "Like Water for Chocolate," is likely to remain his crowning achievement.

Born and reared on the South Side, Lonnie Rashid Lynn first garnered national attention for his extraordinary freestyle rapping -- spontaneously spinning complicated but agile rhymes about any subject that struck him -- when he won the "Unsigned Hype" contest sponsored by the Source magazine, then the bible of the hip-hop scene. He made his recorded debut in 1992 with an album called "Can I Borrow a Dollar?" under the name Common Sense, which he kept until the mid-'90s, when a lawsuit filed by a since-forgotten ska band forced him to become simply Common.

Over the course of two more releases for the independent Relativity label -- "Resurrection" (1994) and "One Day It'll All Make Sense" (1997) -- Common distinguished himself as an outspoken artist unafraid of bucking the prevailing trends of violent and misogynistic gangsta rap in favor of more uplifting messages. But he was only warming up.

In the late '90s, the rapper moved to Brooklyn and connected with a circle of other musically inventive, socially conscious rap and R&B artists including the Roots, D'Angelo, Mos Def, Lauryn Hill and Erykah Badu (with whom he had a romantic relationship that lasted several years). Cameos on some of these artists' discs and the strength of his indie albums -- which sold modestly but won raves from critics and peers -- prompted MCA Records to sign Common in late 1998, and he began working on his fourth disc with producers Jay Dee of Slum Village and Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson, the drummer for the Roots.

Thompson was the musical powerhouse behind several extraordinary albums during this period, including D'Angelo's "Voodoo," Badu's "Mama's Gun" and Common's MCA debut. "I tried to do all in my power that I could to bring people together -- to bring Common to Electric Lady [Studio in New York], have him record here whenever so that he could record with some of these other artists," Thompson told me in 2002. "You'd just come into [the studio's] A Room, you don't even know who has a session, but you call me: 'Who's down there?' 'Common's in there today.' So you come down, you order some food, sit down and bulls---, watch a movie, and then it's, 'Let's play something.' And I say, 'Who wants this [track]?' And it would be, 'I want it!' 'No, I want it!' "

Indeed, one of the most striking tracks on "Voodoo," "Chicken Grease," was originally intended for Common's album, but D'Angelo wanted it, and he offered Common another song as a trade. "Geto Heaven Part Two" became one of the strongest songs on "Like Water For Chocolate," which took its title from Laura Esquivel's novel -- a love story set in Mexico -- but put a striking twist on it with a civil rights-era cover shot of a young African-American girl drinking from a fountain marked "Colored Only."

"The revolution will not be televised," Common declares at the start of "The 6th Sense," evoking the famous proto-rap song by Gil Scott-Heron. "The revolution is here."

Over the album's often mellow and always soulful and entrancing grooves, the artist proceeds to survey the state of black America, offering prescriptions for improving its sometimes dire straits, starting with the call to honor women -- most notably on the hit single "The Light" -- and to seek alternatives to the soul-crushing cycle of drugs, crime and violence. But while there is some straightforward, old-school "edutainment" -- including "A Song for Assata," about political exile and former Black Panther Assata Shakur -- Common never comes across as a strident preacher. He often uses humor to make his points, as in "A Film Called (Pimp)" and "Payback Is A Grandmother," angry diatribes delivered as cutting parodies of gangsta rap's obsessions with prostitutes and violence.

"I won't get the kids if I come straight with just, 'We must elevate, be positive,'" Common told me at the time of the album's release. "You've got to talk to kids in their language. It ain't like I don't know the language. The pimp song, I'm being humorous with it, but I'm putting some images in it, too. Everything in hip-hop now is so serious, where Slick Rick or EPMD used to tell stories that were entertaining. I don't feel that any album should be one-sided.

"I sat down with a plan, a goal, and a wish list of things that I wanted to do musically," he said. "I wanted to make an album where you listen to the stories and look at the whole picture; I wanted you to see the portrait and not separate the colors in it. It's all one story, one movie."

If there is one theme that runs through every song on the album, it is that everyone has the power to transcend their circumstances if they believe in themselves and a higher power, whether that force is God or music. For Common, the two are clearly one and the same. "Music is a gift that is sacred," he raps in "Geto Heaven Part Two." "Can't imagine goin' through it without soul music ... Find heaven in this music and God."