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
"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
"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
"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
• "I Want You," a sexy track produced by will.i.am of the Black
"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."
Excerpts from the CD reviews written by Sun-Times Pop Music Critic Jim
DeRogatis at the time of the discs' releases:
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.
1. "Be" (2005)
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.
2. "Electric Circus" (2002)
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.
3. "Like Water for Chocolate" (2000)
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
4. "Resurrection" (1994)
Common, "Finding Forever" (Universal)