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
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
"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
When: 7 p.m.
Where: House of Blues, 329 N. Dearborn
Phone: (312) 923-2000
a sense of soulful humanity on 'Be'
Critic's rating: ****
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.
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.
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.
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
"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!"
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.
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
"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.