Mutual admiration shines on Common/West collaboration


May 22, 2005


Before Kanye West, there was Common -- South Side native Lonnie Rashid Lynn -- the first rapper to bring the Chicago hip-hop scene to national attention, and one of the genre's most inventive forces for the last 13 years.

Now, two of the most successful artists from the Windy City have joined forces on Common's sixth album, "Be," one of the most anticipated releases of 2005, and one of the smartest and most moving rap recordings in years.

"It's a special time," Common said at the start of a spirited interview that found the always-upbeat artist more ebullient than ever. "I feel like it's a special moment in my career, in hip-hop, in black music and in music abroad. I feel like this album is one of those albums that will transcend time and color barriers and genres."

Meanwhile, West, whose own self-confidence and enthusiasm are never set lower than 11, is just as optimistic. "This album is the bomb, man," he said last year as he started his collaboration with Common, "and Common is a genius."


When: 7 p.m. June 1-2
Where: House of Blues, 329 N. Dearborn
Tickets: $35
Phone: (312) 923-2000

Common finds a sense of soulful humanity on 'Be'

Critic's rating: ****

Superstar collaborations often disappoint, but the pairing of two Chicago hip-hop giants has prompted each to hit new heights. "Be" lacks the sense of discovery displayed in "Like Water for Chocolate" and "The College Drop-Out," but Common has never been more eloquent or stretched further as a rapper, and Kanye West has never produced more lush or winning backing tracks.

Rather than pandering by bringing a harder edge to songs such as "The Corner," which ponders how the black activism of the '60s turned into self-destructive gangbanging (and which nods to hip-hop history with a cameo from the pioneering Last Poets), and "It's Your World," the gritty tale of a prostitute, Common finds the soulful humanity in these characters, making the case that they're as spiritual and family-oriented as he is -- and that, for all of his alleged "hippie" tendencies, he is as "real" as they are.

Common's sixth album may fall short of the giddy, neo-psychedelic musical reinvention of "Electric Circus" and the mind-blowing spiritualism of "Like Water for Chocolate." But by combining elements of both, and recovering the sharp-eyed sense of humor that had been slipping away over the last few albums, he has made a disc that is both deeper and more fun than either of its predecessors.

No other male artist in hip-hop today has the guts or the philosophical curiosity to question whether God is a woman, as Common does in "Faithful." And no one would drive the point home with as memorable a couplet as, "Would I treat Her the same/Would I still be running game? ... Would I want Her for Her mind/Or Her heavenly body?"

West and Common may not live in Chicago at the moment, but the city left indelible marks on them, via their roots in soul, R&B and blues; their no-fronting attitudes in examining real-life issues; their work ethic, and their Midwestern optimism. And "Be" is a brilliant album that stands with the finest of our town's greatest musical talents -- as soulful as the Staple Singers, as socially conscious as Curtis Mayfield, as wildly ambitious as the Smashing Pumpkins and as sexually provocative as Liz Phair.

Jim DeRogatis


Launching his career under the moniker Common Sense, the dexterous freestyle rapper made his bow in 1992 with the striking debut, "Can I Borrow a Dollar?" He proceeded to hone his craft over two more strong recordings, "Resurrection" in 1994 and "One Day It Will All Make Sense" in 1997, carving a distinctive place on the rap scene with eloquent, heartfelt lyrics about faith, family and everyday life in the African-American community at a time when macho bragging and gangsta posing were the norm.

"When I first came to hip-hop, I was definitely expressing myself as a young, black, middle-class kid from Chicago," said Common, who grew up in a solid South Side neighborhood as the son of a respected educator, Mahalia Ann Hines, the principal at Hope College Prep High School.

"I grew up around gang-bangers, but I grew up around the black middle class, too -- people who were traveling places, going to private schools and had three or four bedrooms in their house. I connected with both walks of life, and because I felt that connection, I could express that and be in tune from each perspective. But I remember people telling me when I did my first single, 'You ain't a gangsta. Just be you.'

"My father used to tell me that the real gangsters he knew would be in church with their families on Sunday," Common added. "There are people who have been gangsters who still do things for the community. They live that life by choice, and that's who they are, but I feel that there is more to all of us than just one thing. We all love, we all laugh, we all cry. I always felt like I wanted to narrate what I saw about people's lives in a way that a Marvin Gaye or a Bob Marley or a Stevie Wonder would do it."

That ambition came to fruition and Common reached the widest audience of his career in 2000 when he sold 750,000 copies of "Like Water for Chocolate." By this point, he had left Chicago and relocated to Brooklyn, and he entered a productive collaboration with a collective of East Coast rap and R&B artists including the Roots, D'Angelo and Erykah Badu. (He and Badu also had a romantic relationship that lasted several years.)

Unfortunately, while the rapper's next release, 2002's "Electric Circus," stands as his most musically daring, it sold fewer than half the copies of "Like Water for Chocolate," and its genre-hopping sounds prompted some reviewers in the hip-hop press to dismiss its creator as having gone "hippie" or "soft."

"I know who I am, so I don't really have much to prove, but some macho side of me is like, 'Man, I ain't soft!'" Common said, laughing. He took solace from the fact that the same adjective had been used to dismiss many socially conscious "alternative rappers" before him, including groundbreakers De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest.

"I wanted to expand hip-hop and the hip-hop audience by making people understand that music is a broad thing," Common said. "It's an unlimited amount of creativity: I can be hip-hop and still implement rock and jazz and soul. At the time, I wasn't digging a lot of hip-hop, and I got inspired by other things and created an album not only to do something new and to challenge myself as an artist, but to give the audience a new way to understand and appreciate the music. It didn't get received well across the board, and I was definitely disappointed and hurt by that, but I still stand by 'Electric Circus' strong."

The album's relative failure marked the end of Common's relationship with MCA Records, but a new force on the Chicago rap scene was on the ascendance and coming to the rescue. When I was reviewing Common's performance at the House of Blues in support of "Electric Circus" in 2003, I first met Kanye West. "I'm a producer, but I'm gonna be dropping my own album that's as good as Common!" he bragged.

A year later, in early 2004, West took to the same stage the day after the release of that disc, "The College Dropout," and Common joined him for a cameo appearance. "My man Kanye is single-handedly bringing hip-hop to a whole new level!" Common declared, and that statement proved prophetic: West's debut went on to become the most acclaimed release of 2004, and it made him hip-hop's most exciting new superstar.

The multi-platinum success of "The College Dropout" changed the playing field in hip-hop, shifting the spotlight from repetitive celebrations of the thug life in favor of something more positive and uplifting -- but still sexy, self-assured and very, very cool. "I commend Kanye, because out of all of us, he was the first to be like, 'Yo, I want money, I want to get paid, I want to wear this chain -- and I've got something to say about life and life experiences," Common said.

West was now in a position to give something back to one of the artists who inspired him. He signed Common to his new Geffen-distributed imprint, Getting Out Our Dreams (GOOD) Records, and he produced nine of the 11 tracks on "Be."

Common, 33, and West, 27, share similar backgrounds. West also grew up in a middle-class home on the South Side, and his mother is also an educator. Like Common, West rejected the gangsta pose and rapped about issues such as God, family and working as a clerk at the Gap. And both artists grew up with an abiding love for the soul and R&B classics they heard on Chicago radio.

West's winning formula -- which has produced hits for Alicia Keyes, Jay-Z, Ludacris, John Legend and Twista, in addition to his own debut -- starts with reworking the hooks from forgotten "dusties" and pairing them with strong new beats. As West crafted the musical backings, Common was inspired to stretch out as a lyricist.

"Kanye and I would sit in the studio and listen to music," Common said. "He would find a sample that he liked and start cooking it up, and I would either be like, 'Oh, my God, I can't wait to write this!' or 'Kanye, that's cool; let's go to the next one!' On some days, we would get three songs that I would end up not using, and on some, we'd get two that ended up on the album. The music he was creating venerated what I wrote.

"Kanye and I are from the same womb of music as far as the soulful dusties, along with the hip-hop. Some of his favorite music in hip-hop was A Tribe Called Quest and Pete Rock and De La Soul, and that's some of the same music I grew up listening to and really appreciating. We definitely come from the same place, even as far as our similar backgrounds growing up. But one thing I have been noticing about how we balance each other out is that Kanye is more outgoing and overt about his confidence.

"It ain't bragging," Common concludes. "It's just confidence, and I love that about him. He exudes that, and he brings that out of me at certain points. So when I talk about this album, I'm not afraid to be like, 'Man, this is special. It's a moment in time,' and I believe that."

In addition to this infectious self-assurance, Common has been inspired by West's approach as a multimedia entrepreneur. West is moving into movies and running a record label, and Common is introducing a line of designer hats (he's famous for his ubiquitous caps), branching out into acting (he now calls Los Angeles home) and planning to write a children's book with his mother.

"Be" deserves every bit of the success that its makers predict. But the hip-hop world is a fickle one, and hits are never guaranteed. One thing is for certain, though: Common remains one of a kind, a creative force to reckon with, and an artist who has made Chicago proud.

Common celebrates the release of "Be," which arrives in stores on Tuesday, with two concerts at the House of Blues, 329 N. Dearborn, at 7 p.m. on June 1-2. Tickets are $35; call (312) 923-2000.