With "Chi City," one of
several standout tracks from his sixth album, "Be," Common has created the
best Chicago pop anthem since the Smashing Pumpkins paid romantic tribute to
"your city by the lake" in "Tonight, Tonight." The rapper and hometown hero
delivered his homage two songs into a fiery 90-minute set Wednesday at the
House of Blues, the first of three sold-out gigs, and it was partly an
affirmation that Chicago finally has arrived on the national hip-hop scene.
In the last 16 months, the
Windy City has seen three hip-hop releases debut big on the Billboard chart:
Twista's "Kamikaze," Kanye West's "The College Dropout" and now Common's
Kanye-produced "Be," which sold more than 180,000 copies during its first
week. It debuted Tuesday at No. 2 (just behind "Out of Exile" from
Audioslave, which features another local, Libertyville native Tom Morello).
"And you say Chi
city/We don't stop, nah we don't quit," Common rapped in the choruses,
and the packed crowd joined him by shouting along at the top of their lungs.
In addition to flaunting
some hometown pride, "Chi City" also found the usually self-effacing South
Side native Lonnie Rashid Lynn asserting his rightful place on hip-hop's top
tier. Common has been a potent artistic force since 1992, and on 2000's
"Like Water for Chocolate," he seemed poised for a national breakout. But
with his next disc, 2002's wildly inventive "Electric Circus," he was
written off by the short-sighted hip-hop press as being "too soft" and going
"hippie" -- misperceptions he is eager to correct.
"I rap with the
passion of Christ, nigga cross me/Took it outta space and niggas thought
they lost me," Common rapped. "I'm back like a chiropract wit' b-boy
survival rap/ This ain't '94, Joe, we can't go back."
Nevertheless, Common did
indeed go back at the House of Blues, bringing an undeniable old-school
energy to the harder-edged songs from his new album, flashing justifiable
anger in his freestyle raps ("F--- whack emcees, and f--- Bush," he railed)
and eschewing the incredible 10-piece band that powered the "Electric
Circus" tour in favor of minimal backing from a percussionist, a keyboardist
and the deft DJ Dummy.
The fact that "Electric
Circus" could be summarily rejected by hip-hop's gangsta-obsessed mainstream
makes a sad statement about the lowest-common-denominator commercial
mind-set that stymies the genre's artistic development. But Common has
accepted the rules and decided to play by them -- the better to subvert them
from a position of strength within.
The power, dynamic
subtlety and musical dexterity of his old band were missed on Wednesday, but
the rapper's rapid-fire flow, agile tongue and sharp lyrical flair always
have been at the heart of his performances, and his new show kept his
biggest assets firmly in the spotlight. Nor did he compromise his core
Common may have been
talking tougher and playing to the street with new tracks such as "The
Corner" and "It's Your World," and he might have surprised some listeners by
bringing a new fury to his 2000 hit "The Light." But he started the show
with the eloquent spiritual manifesto that opens "Be," delivering part of it
to his beloved 7-year-old daughter Omoye Lynn; he touted his feminist
beliefs by wondering if God is a woman in "Faithful," and he provided an
unforgettable climax to the evening during an encore of "The Food," a new
track that deserves to be the runaway hit of the summer.
With its anthemic chorus
of "I can't run away/Or put my gun away," the song finds Common
laying bare the soul of a troubled gangsta and boasting, "I break bread
with thieves and pastors, OGs and masters/Emcees and actors that seize and
capture/Moments like the camcorder."
Few rappers have ever
captured a moment better than Common, and "The Food" epitomizes his strength
as a one-of-a-kind artist who might finally be able to bridge hip-hop's
fractured schisms, at long last bringing together gangstas and activists,
pop panderers and artistic visionaries, and street thugs and spiritual