Common - Biography
By Paul Glanting
In a hip-hop sense, Chicago is oddly placed in the United States. The recent hefty output of hip-hop to have emerged out of the Windy City has an immensely vast amount of influences swimming through its rhythmic bloodstream. Too far west to be considered East Coast, and too far to the North to be considered a part of the dirty south, Chicago is indeed a musical creature all its own. Chicago rapper, Common’s lengthy musical catalogue indeed fuels the fire to these notions of Chicago’s versatile contributions to the genre. Common's stamp on the hip-hop community is one which is fraught with respect, critical acclaim and a hellbent desire to constantly outdo himself, creatively. Common’s unique-breed of rap is some of the most poetic material to be yielded within the hip-hop genre, his clear voice constantly touching on the metaphysics of human experience and romanticized interpretations of inner-city life.
Common was born Lonnie Rashid Lynn in Chicago, Illinois and while his parents divorced soon after he was born, both played active roles in young Lonnie’s upbringing. After two years in college, Common would begin to pursue his rap career. Common made an appearance in The Source Magazine’s famous “Unsigned Hype” column, a prophetic segment of the publication which has showcased fledgling rappers whom are on the up and up, many of whom who would blossom into hip-hop icons, such as DMX, 50 Cent, Eminem and the Notorious B.I.G. . Common soon thereafter put out the single Take it EZ (Relativity-1992), which would appear on Common’s debut album Can I Borrow a Dollar? (Relativity-1992). Originally going by the moniker Common Sense, Can I Borrow a Dollar? was garnered a marginal amount of critical acclaim and was barely even noticeable from a commercial standpoint. Nonetheless, many consider Common’s debut album to have put Chicago's hip-hop on the map. This claim is especially significant considering that hip-hop’s landscape was, by and large, occupied by artists whom were from Los Angeles and New York. Can I Borrow a Dollar? is an early indicator of Common manifesting his ability to deliver heartfelt musings on urban life, delivered with a smooth flow that was equal parts soul as it was raw hip-hop. Along with the first single “Take it EZ”, the album also featured “Soul By the Pound” and “Breaker 1/9.” Both of which combined to make what many critics agree is one of hip-hop’s most underrated debut albums.
While Can I Borrow a Dollar? flew beneath the radar of many whom were outside of Chicago, his follow-up Resurrection (Relativity-1994) found a great deal of critical acclaim. Largely concerned with personal growth, Common’s sophomore album was an artistic meditation on personal growth. Producing all but one of the album’s fifteen tracks was longtime collaborator No ID, whom had produced a great deal of Common’s debut. For Resurrection, No ID polished gritty soul samples and melded them with aggressive bass-lines and preexisting hip-hop samples. The album’s most recognizable song has also become one of Common’s watershed tracks, with “I Used to Love H.E.R.”, which uses a woman as a consistent metaphor for hip-hop. In the song, Common compares the decline of interest in Afro-centric rap music and the subsequent rise of West Coast Gangster rap, in the early nineties, to a young woman's loss of self-respect. The song has been hailed as one of the best odes to hip-hop in the genre’s history. Resurrection was released at a time when the East Coast sound--characterized by classic Soul and Jazz-based samples--was making a bit of a comeback. Many hip-hop critics feel that Resurrection is Common’s greatest work and belongs among other great albums of the era such as Nas’ Illmatic (Columbia-1994) and Wu-Tang Clan’s Enter the Wu Tang (36 Chambers) (Loud records-1993).
While Resurrection was a critical success, the track “I Used to Love H.E.R.” would spark a dispute between the Chicago-born rapper and L.A-bred rappers Westside Connection, would felt disparaged by Common’s negative portrayal of the West Coast’s contribution to hip-hop. The two sides would sling insults at each other for a period of time before the conflict was mollified by Muslim-leader, Louis Farrakhan.
Common’s artistic growth continued as he began to record his third album. Common would also become a father, a milestone in his life that many agree contributed to his subsequently amplified sense of responsibility. Because of his personal and artistic maturation One Day It'll All Make Sense (Relativity-1997) was delayed almost an entire year. Nevertheless, standout tracks like “Retrospect for Life”, which was accompanied by a chorus sung by Lauryn Hill was a sincere and heartfelt dedication to his first daughter. Common’s socially conscious perspective on the world would certainly suggest that he was perhaps leading the charge of a renaissance, harkening back to hip-hop’s “Native Tongue Era”, a time when the genre was dominated by lighthearted but forward thinking hip-hop artists like A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul. Joining Common on his third album were guests like Questlove (of The Roots), Cee Lo (of the Goodie Mob) and Erykah Badu. Overall the critical reaction for One Day It'll All Make Sense was favorable. However, like his previous album, it was commercially rather lackluster.
Following One Day It'll All Make Sense, Common relocated from Chicago to New York City, where he began to collaborate with a collective of artists known as the Soulquarians, a group of hip-hop and Soul artists that included longtime collaborators The Roots, Jay Dee and several others. With the Soulquarians in tow, and Roots drummer Questlove executive producing, Common released Like Water for Chocolate (MCA-2000). The album was a commercial breakthrough, selling nearly 70,000 copies in its first week. Like Water for Chocolate featured production from legendary Gang Starr producer DJ Premiere (“The Sixth Sense”) but a hefty majority of the album was produced by Soulquarians-bandmate Jay Dee (later known as J Dilla), who would later go on to innovate soulful hip-hop productions for the better part of the next couple of years before he sadly lost a battle with Lupus. Like Water for Chocolate hears Common continue his deep introspection of love and life on songs like “The Light” and speaks out against society’s ills on tracks like "Nag Champa (Afrodisiac For The World)." The video for “The Light” was also in consistent rotation on MTV and Common would even snag a Grammy nomination for best Rap Performance. Common had always been appreciated in underground hip-hop circles but was now finding some attention within the realm of the mainstream.
Without a doubt his most daring venture, Common’s next album was Electric Circus (MCA-2003), which sought to smash the musical boundaries of hip-hop. In attempting to do so, Common worked with everyone from mainstream hit-makers The Neptunes (“Come Close”) to indie-rock veteran Laetitia Sadier (of Stereolab) ("New Wave") to the legendary Prince (“Star 69”). The album would prove to be divisive; while many appreciated Common’s artistic courage, many felt the album was attempting to do too much. Content-wise, Common was noted for speaking out against what he felt were ugly sexually dynamics within hip-hop, condemning the genre’s presence of sexism and homophobia.
Common’s next project was primarily architected by fellow Chicago-native Kanye West--a one-time protégé of Common’s collaborator No ID. While Electric Circus was all over the place, Be (Geffen-2005) was a tight-knit return to form. Tracks like “The Corner”, which featured controversial spoken word artists The Last Poets, was a gritty depiction of an urban intersection and the fast-paced “Go” featured prominent guitarist John Mayer.
Common and Kanye West continued their successful formula with Common’s next album Finding Forever (Geffen-2007). Common said that despite the fact that J Dilla had died, he knew J Dilla’s music was so influential that he would be remembered forever and that was what the Chicago rapper was striving for. It’s rumored that Kanye tried to manipulate certain samples ia fashion similar to J Dilla as way of honoring the late producer.
Common’s next project was the electronic-tinged Universal Mind Control (Geffen-2008), which was primarily produced by hip-hop taste-makers The Neptunes. The album hears the unusually mellow Common delivering rhymes furiously over The Neptunes' techno-inspired productions. This album was another highly divisive album among critics and fans. Like many of his albums, some listeners enjoyed the introverted Common venturing down a more upbeat road, while some felt he was merely trying to adopt a more commercially savvy sound. Common followed this with 2011's The Dreamer/The Believer, then taking a break from musical projects to focus on other activities, only to return in 2014 for Nobody's Smiling, jumping back into the marketplace with his special brand of hip hop poetry full force.
Hip-hop was originally an art based on poetry in its purist form. At times, hip-hop has lost its poetic roots in favor of debauchery, violence and sex. However, artists like Common, whom truly place an emphasis upon the art of hip-hop have reinvigorated the the soulful and spiritual poetry that has made hip-hop perhaps the most verbally expressive musical genre. Common also continues to push and encourage the artists who surround him to strive to become better artists and push hip-hop into new dimensions.