Common eloquence


June 3, 2005


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 messages.

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 preachers.