Common was born Lonnie Rashied Lynn on the South Side of Chicago, an area not exactly noted for its fertile Hip Hop scene. Nonetheless, he honed his skills to the point where -- performing as Common Sense -- he was able to catch his first break, winning The Source magazine's Unsigned Hype contest. He debuted in 1992 with the single 'Take It EZ', which appeared on his Combat-released debut album, Can I Borrow a Dollar?; further singles 'Breaker 1/9' and 'Soul by the Pound' helped establish his reputation in the Hip Hop underground, although some critics complained about the record's occasional misogynistic undertones. Common Sense subsequently wound up on Ruthless Records for his 1994 follow-up, Resurrection, which crystallized his reputation as one of the underground's best (and wordiest) lyricists. The track 'I Used to Love H.E.R'. attracted substantial notice for its clever allegory about rap's descent into commercially exploitative sex-and-violence subject matter, and even provoked a short-lived feud with Ice Cube. Subsequently, Common Sense was sued by a ska band of the same name, and was forced to shorten his own moniker to Common; he also relocated from Chicago to Brooklyn.
Bumped up to parent label Relativity, Common issued the first album under his new name in 1997. One Day It'll All Make Sense capitalized on the fledgling resurgence of intelligent Hip Hop with several prominent guests, including Lauryn Hill, Q-Tip, De La Soul, Erykah Badu, Cee-Lo, and the Roots' Black Thought. The album was well received in the press, and Common raised his profile with several notable guest spots over the next couple of years; he appeared on Pete Rock's Soul Survivor, plus two watermark albums of the new progressive Hip Hop movement, Mos Def and Talib Kweli's Black Star and the Roots' Things Fall Apart. Common also hooked up with indie rap kingpins Rawkus for a one-off collaboration with Sadat X, '1-9-9-9', which appeared on the label's seminal Soundbombing, Vol. 2 compilation.
With his name popping up in all the right places, Common landed a major-label deal with MCA, and brought on Roots drummer Questlove as producer for his next project. Like Water for Chocolate was released in early 2000 and turned into something of a breakthrough success, attracting more attention than any Common album to date (partly because of MCA's greater promotional resources). Guests this time around included Macy Gray, MC Lyte, Cee-Lo, Mos Def, D'Angelo, jazz trumpeter Roy Hargrove, and Afro-beat star Femi Kuti (on a tribute to his legendary father Fela). Plus, the singles 'The Sixth Sense' and 'The Light' (the latter of which earned a Grammy nomination for Best Rap Solo Performance) earned considerable airplay. Following that success, Common set the stage for his next record with an appearance on Mary J. Blige's No More Drama in early 2002. He issued his most personal work to date with Electric Circus, a sprawling album that polarized fans, in December of that year. Be, a much tighter album that was produced primarily by Kanye West, followed in May 2005, netting four Grammy nominations. West remained on board for both Finding Forever (2007) and the lighter Universal Mind Control (2008), though the Neptunes dominated the latter. For 2011's The Dreamer/The Believer, Common worked exclusively with longtime associate and friend No I.D.
Words: Steve Huey
Common spent the '90s carrying the Native Tongues torch through an era dominated by gangsta rap, earning a sizable underground following. Positive-minded alternative rap came back into vogue by the new millennium, and Common managed to land with major label MCA for 2000's Like Water for Chocolate. The album established him as a leading figure of alternative rap's second generation, not just because of the best promotion he'd ever had, but also because it was his great musical leap forward, building on the strides of One Day It'll All Make Sense. There's production work by the Roots' Questlove, neo-soul auteur D'Angelo, the Soulquarians, and DJ Premier. But the vast majority of the album was handled by Slum Village's Jay Dee, and his thick, mellow, soul- and jazz-inflected sonics make Like Water for Chocolate one of the richest-sounding albums of the new underground movement. Common isn't always a master technician on the mic, but it hardly matters when the music serves his deeply spiritual vision and smooth-flowing raps so effectively. The singles "The Light" and "The 6th Sense" are quintessential Common, uplifting and thoughtful, and helped bring him a whole new audience. They're well complemented by the slinky, jazzy funk and lush neo-soul ballads that make up the record. Not everything is sweetness and utopia, either; Common sends up his own progressive image on "A Film Called (Pimp)," which features a hilarious guest appearance by MC Lyte, and spins a gripping first-person tale of revenge on the streets on "Payback Is a Grandmother" (though the tougher "Dooinit" feels a bit forced). The album could have been trimmed a bit to keep its momentum going, but on the whole, Like Water for Chocolate is a major statement from an artist whose true importance was just coming into focus.
Words: Steve Huey
Electric Circus cost and won Common some fans. It was very exploratory, especially so for a rap album released in 2002, containing developments -- some of which soared, some of which sank -- that few longtime followers could have foreseen. Listeners either felt Common was picking up fresh, new inspirations, or that he was just being distracted by a whole lot of ill-fitting nonsense. With Be, it seems the MC has realized that not every album that's sprawling and eclectic is as good as Electric Ladyland or Songs in the Key of Life. More notably, he might've been struck with the fact that a high percentage of excellent albums are around 40 minutes in length and are built on a unified sound. Be is highly concentrated, containing 11 songs and involving two producers and a small number of guests. It's a 180 degree turn from Electric Circus, and in a bizarre way it's both a progression and a back-to-basics move. Kanye West and Dilla are key to the album's steadiness, rooting the sound in '70s soul and soul-jazz. That's no shakeup, but the two producers deserve some form of award for stringing together a consistent sequence of productions that is never monotonous, dull, or all that flashy. Even lead single "The Corner," heard well before Be's release, falls into the fabric of the album on first listen, as if that were where it belonged all along. Lyrically, Common comes back down to Earth -- the narratives are sharp as ever, the gripes are more like observations than screeds, and the eccentricities need to be teased out rather than swatted away. Be isn't likely to be referred to by anyone as groundbreaking, but it's one of Common's best, and it's also one of the most tightly constructed albums of any form within recent memory.
Words: Andy Kellman
In "The People," Common rhymes "My daughter found Nemo/I found the new Primo," yet it is the late J Dilla -- not DJ Premier -- who is emulated by Kanye West throughout Finding Forever. Dilla's 2006 death has had Common and Kanye not just grieving but further contemplating the making of music that outlasts their time on the planet. This lends a kind of heaviness, a level of seriousness, and a sometimes overbearing sense of "What we are doing here is intended to be important," not present on 2005's Be -- a taut and steady album with an unforced and seemingly less conceptualized liquid flow. This time out, Kanye adopts a "What would Dilla do?" approach to his productions. (As on Be, most of the tracks feature his handiwork, with some duties farmed out to others.) Though the intentions are good, it's an audacious move: idiosyncratic and often brilliant producer attempts to channel the creativity of a master who constantly switched up his game. It doesn't help Kanye's cause that the album's sweetest track is the Dilla-produced "So Far to Go" (heard in original form on Dilla's The Shining), sandwiched between two Kanye beats that can be tuned out with no effort. There are some subtle references to Dilla, and while it's perfectly acceptable that no outright mimicry is going on, the majority of the beats are slightly substandard, at least by Kanye standards. Common delivers plenty of lyrical potency, whether he's mixing the sad with the silly ("Doin' all she can for her man and her baby, drivin' herself crazy like the astronaut lady") or dishing out some serious Nas-worthy disdain ("With 12 monkeys on-stage, it's hard to see who's a gorilla -- you was better as a drug dealer"). Sometimes, though, he's only providing more ammo for those who still maintain that his best album is his less than didactic debut, like the Cosby-in-training "He had a fetish for shoes that's athletic/Pathetic on his MySpace page half-naked." The album includes a handful of well-placed and effectual guest contributors including Bilal, Dwele, Lily Allen, Common's dad, and the one and only Primo.
Words: Andy Kellman
The eighth Common album was originally titled "Invincible Summer," but delays slid its release back to December. Though Mortal Winter might've been more apt, Universal Mind Control does correctly point toward a lighter, less cerebral set relative to the MC's discography from The Resurrection onward. The glinting "Change" is a track filled with hope and optimism about younger generations and the rise of Obama, and "Inhale," another standout, carries a surplus of uplift and urgency. Otherwise, Common's here to have a good time, no strings attached, with uneven results. Occasionally adopting a casual old-school flow, best heard on the neo-Bambaataa electro throwback title track, he spends most of his time boasting about his prowess, whether he's referring to being on the mike or in the bedroom. At the album's lowest, he sounds uncomfortably out of character, as on "Announcement"; its stern beat, one of the seven provided by the Neptunes, resembles a Clipse cast-off, pushing Common into ill-suited thuggishness. The sluggish, mindless "Punch Drunk Love" ("My ungh is in your body/My ungh is in your mind") and "Sex 4 Suga" ("Girl, ooh, you look ungh") are nearly as dire, likewise sacrificing cleverness for bluntness. The album's last two tracks, production-wise, depart from Hip Hop and will hopefully send some listeners back to the flawed greatness of Electric Circus. "What a World" features some of Common's most enjoyable, if simplistic, old-school rhymes, but the song is impaired by its dance-rock/Rapture-knockoff backdrop; and even with some of Common's most energized lines appearing as late as midway through the much more effective "Everywhere," the Dungeon Family's Mr. DJ (who produced two other tracks) drops some low-slung sci-fi synth-funk for Martina Topley-Bird's spaced vocal feature.
Words: Andy Kellman
Firmly out of the underground by the time Electric Circus came out in late 2002, Common takes the vision to the next level, employing high-profile producers ?uestlove, Dilla (Jay Dee), and the Neptunes. It's no surprise that the ?uestlove tracks push the most unclaimed territory. The Roots' Phrenology record, which appeared concurrent with Electric Circus, also flips the script on preconceived notions of beats and rhymes. Frequently the new sound on both records is pushed into a strange, sometimes aggressive, blunted rock/soul hybrid that still pulls the line for able-bodied MCs. Then there's also the Neptunes' tracks here, which are perfectly suited for MTV and urban radio. The Mary J. Blige duet, "Come Close," is a slow-paced dialogue between Common and Blige that borders on typical, but will still find a great number of fans. "Electric Wire Hustler Flower" is the true centerpiece of the record, though -- another ?uestlove jam, the song is tough but sensitive enough to maintain the layers of rhythm, rhyme, and abstraction. Electric Circus does suffer from that which ails many contemporary Hip Hop albums -- too many guests (including a strange appearance by Laetitia Sadier Stereolab]) and a generally lengthy program drag this one down a tad. Nonetheless, Electric Circus is a brave and ruthless statement wrapped in sincerity.
Words: Sam Samuelson