Common ground for star

July 29, 2007


Lonnie Rashid Lynn arrives at Chicago's W Hotel in a scene that could come from one his videos: A black Cadillac Escalade pulls up, and the rapper better known as Common steps out wearing a T-shirt with the image of Mahatma Gandhi. Ten-year-old Omoye Assata Lynn, who's been patiently waiting in the outdoor lobby, throws herself into his arms with a gleeful cry of "Daddy!" And her father beams.

The hard-core hip-hop crowd has long branded the Chicago-bred, Los Angeles-based family man as a preachy hippie and "backpack rapper" -- "I'm the socially conscious love artist," Common says, laughing -- and anyone witnessing his latest homecoming would have to admit that, along with the spiritual theme of hits such as "The Light," the two children's books he's written, his Soji line of high-end designer hats and those ubiquitous "Peace, Love, Gap" ads, it plays into that stereotype.

Yet from the moment 15 years ago when he burst out of the tough South Side neighborhood around 87th Street, to the start of what he calls the "second cycle" of his career beginning with the release of "Be" in 2005, Common has always been a complex artist and thinker. And when his seventh album, "Finding Forever," arrives in stores Tuesday, fans will hear him sharing more of himself than ever.

"I don't know if it comes with maturity, but I'm not afraid to show any side of myself anymore," the 35-year-old rapper says. "Being boxed in is definitely something I've encountered, but I have always known that I am a balanced individual, and on this album, I've been able to express that more. I feel more comfortable about who I am and more confident saying, 'Hey, I can joke and play these roles and show my sense of humor and talk about dealing with the world and society and spirituality.' No gangster is just a gangster, and no preacher is just a preacher."

As with the platinum hit "Be," most of "Finding Forever" was produced by red-hot hit-maker and fellow Chicagoan Kanye West. But the more pared-down sound represents a different direction for the producer and friend Common calls 'Ye. Before "Be," the biggest hits of Common's career were crafted by his former roommate, the influential Detroit producer J Dilla, who died in early 2006 after a struggle with lupus.

"I didn't know what 'Ye was doing until we had a meeting with the label," Common says. "We played them the album when we were about 70 percent done with it, and Kanye told this story about how he had a meeting with Steven Spielberg where Spielberg told him that 'A.I.' was a tribute to Stanley Kubrick. 'Ye correlated that by saying that the way he produced this album was the way Dilla would have done it. When he said that, it really touched me: I had a little chill."

Over Kanye's exquisitely well-chosen samples and expertly crafted grooves, Common displays the skills as a master free-styler and insightful storyteller familiar from earlier albums such as "Resurrection" (1994), "Like Water for Chocolate" (2000) and the underrated "Electric Circus" (2002). But there are some surprising twists this time. I asked him to explain the origins of the standout tracks, which include:

   "The People," the first single and an inspiring statement of community built on a sample from Gil Scott-Heron and a chorus by Detroit R&B singer Dwele.

"Kanye and I started this album when he was on tour, and we were in Melbourne when he found a record that had that 'People' sample. He spent a long time that day chopping it up, and when he finally got it the way he wanted it, it was a piece of music that just made me feel like, 'Thank you, God, this is such a blessing!' It felt like a Common song, and once he made that beat, it just enabled me to get this off my chest and say, 'This is what I'm about: I'm the voice of the people.'"

   "Black Maybe," with samples from the song of that name by Stevie Wonder and Syreeta Wright, and opening with the provocative statement, "I heard a white man's yes/Is a black maybe."

"That title made me think of how the possibilities for people of color are not the same as the possibilities for those of non-color. The odds are different, and there are layers to it: Not only does society do it, but sometimes your own people do it, and you can even do it in your own mind.... That was something I experienced. When I left Chicago, I got a lot of heat. But if you've spent your whole life in a place that shapes you and nurtures you, you can't leave it; you're always going to be with it."

   "Forever Begins," the album's closer, with a spoken-word part from Common's father, former DuSable High School basketball star Lonnie Lynn.

"When I hear that part of the album, I get a chill. What's amazing about it was when I said 'Finding Forever,' I don't even think I explained the title to my dad, but he said in better terms what I was thinking about: 'What's your contribution to the world? What are you going to put on the scale of humanity? If you have one grain of sand, which side of the scale are you going to put it on?'"

   "Southside," a celebratory Chicago anthem that finds Common and Kanye trading verses.

"That was definitely like the essence of rapping: You're emceeing to impress; you're emceeing to battle -- just me and Kanye going back and forth to see who was going to say the freshest stuff. That's something about our relationship: He and I make each other better."

   "Drivin' Me Wild," a tuneful jam with vocals by English singer Lily Allen.

"We had the music and the hook for it, and once we did, 'Ye said, 'Lily Allen might sound good doing this.' So I just went and started digging into her music and listening to all of it, and I said, 'Yeah, she would be just right!' She's somebody who's just herself and who speaks her mind -- a firecracker."

   "I Want You," a sexy track produced by of the Black Eyed Peas.

"He and I had worked on the Gap commercial, and he started playing these chords, so I asked, 'What's that?' He said he was just messing around, and I said, 'That's my music, then!' You know I like love songs, and this is my perspective on love from another perspective."

Indeed, the varied points of view are one of the disc's biggest strengths: We're not used to hearing Common playing the braggart of "Southside" or the wise-cracking lady-killer of "I Want You" and "Drivin' Me Wild." But these are elements of his personality, too, he says, and he believes his lyrics are becoming richer thanks to recent forays into acting that have taught him he can convincingly adopt alien roles.

Common will appear in three films opening in the next six months: "Wanted" with Angeline Jolie and Morgan Freeman; "The Nightwatchman" with Keanu Reeves and Forest Whitaker and "American Gangster" with Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe. Yet despite this flourishing second career and his many other endeavors, he insists that hip-hop will always be at the center of what he does and who he is -- and that his musical legacy will be his claim to "finding forever."

"When cats say, 'Man, you're getting too old to play hip-hop,' I'm like, 'No, not really, because hip-hop is just learning what it is as a genre.' When you think of artists like Prince or Paul McCartney or Stevie Wonder, they're still making music. I think of myself like a jazz musician: I went and saw Roy Haynes, and he's 80 years old and still playing drums. I could be 79 and still free-styling."


Common's discography

Excerpts from the CD reviews written by Sun-Times Pop Music Critic Jim DeRogatis at the time of the discs' releases:

1. "Be" (2005) 4 stars
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.
2. "Electric Circus" (2002) 3 and a half stars
For former Common, the Electric Circus is a place of infinite possibilities, and his fifth album embraces a broad spectrum of inventive sounds -- from Pink Floyd to psychedelic soul to New Orleans jazz -- bringing them into the hip-hop realm with seductive, laidback grooves and the rapper's free-flowing rhymes of positivity.
3. "Like Water for Chocolate" (2000)4 stars
One of the smartest, most fluid, and most distinctive voices in hip-hop. These soulful and entrancing grooves range from cutting parodies of gangsta obsessions to a touch of transcendent gospel, and through it all runs the sort of literary and political consciousness hinted at by the title, borrowed from Laura Esquivel's novel.
4. "Resurrection" (1994) 3 stars
Eschewing hackneyed tales about dope deals, drive-by shootings, bitches and ho's, this Chicago rapper combines wit and wisdom for the sort of old-school hip-hop album that sounds absolutely of the moment, and completely necessary.

Common, "Finding Forever" (Universal) 3 and a half stars