Common still breathes new life into hip-hop

September 21, 2007


As Lake Michigan loomed to his right and the Sears Tower glowed beyond his left shoulder, Lonnie Rashid Lynn took stock of how far he’s traveled from 87th Street when he mounted the stage for an extraordinary performance Thursday night at the Charter One Pavilion on Northerly Island.

Fifteen years is five times longer than most hip-hop careers last. But Lynn, better known as the rapper Common, not only has endured but slowly and steadily has blossomed: His seventh album, “Finding Forever,” debuted at No. 1 last month, a first for him, and now he’d returned to celebrate.

“It feels good to be home, Chicago,” Common said as he was saluted by thousands of fans who raised their fists in the air in the black power salute of the ’60s, which the artist said he uses to represent love rather than anger. There was a lot of love in the air as he fronted an eight-piece band featuring DJ Dummy, a drummer, two keyboardists and three backing vocalists, and he returned to the subject throughout the night, alternately waxing philosophical and cracking wise.

“Kanye [West] — he love himself,” Common said, referring to the superstar he mentored and who returned the favor by producing his last two albums. “OJ [Simpson] — he be loving the white girls. Britney [Spears] — she be loving to f--- up. OJ be loving to f--- up now, too. But there’s one thing we all love: hip-hop.”

Common then proceeded to show his devotion to and mastery of the form with a tour through its history, linking verses by old-school giants such as N.W.A, Mos Def and Biz Markie with the hypnotic repetition of the words “hip-hop, hip-hop.” He also once again proved his strength as a free-style rapper by improvising a long and complicated rhyme “off the top of my dome” that finally built to a spirited shout of “F--- Bush!”

Angry boaters who’ve protested foul language at other recent rap shows on Northerly Island either forgave Common or agreed with him, since no one was heard honking the horn of their yacht.

During “Testify” from his 2005 album “Be,” Common added a new theatricality as he acted out the role of the judge, the defendant and his girlfriend in a courtroom mini-drama, displaying what he’s recently learned on movie sets. (He appears in three upcoming films: “Wanted” with Angeline Jolie, “The Nightwatchman” with Keanu Reeves and Forest Whitaker, and “American Gangster” with Denzel Washington.)

The rapper also reclaimed the overlooked gem of his discography, “Electric Circus” (2002), reveling in the psychedelia that threw many fans upon the disc’s release.

But best of all were the tracks from “Finding Forever,” including “The People” and “Black Maybe,” which showed that even after seven albums and a decade and a half in front of the mike, the Chicago talent is still finding ways to bring hip-hop into new terrain, with jazzy and sophisticated grooves and poetic and uplifting messages.

The only down side of the night was a mismatch between the headliner and the opening act, Britain’s bubblegum soul singer, Joss Stone. Yes, she and Common both appeared in Gap ads, and the rapper made a cameo on her song “Tell Me What We’re Gonna Do Now.” (She performed the tune in her set, but he didn’t join her.) Yet the connections ended there.

Common is as unremittingly genuine, spontaneous and real as Stone is polished, reserved and affected. She pleasantly but hollowly coasted through her set, acting like a soulful diva more than actually being one.