Common sense

Check out what persistence does. It builds on the scorn of cynics, the warnings of the hesitant. It becomes solid, like rock.

Or it just makes you one damned resolute emcee. Chicago’s Common (born Rashid Lynn) has earned the right to see his mug placed above the dictionary definition of “persistence.” It’s hard to believe the man is 11 years deep in the rap game. Hard to believe he’s made six albums, won a classic beef with Ice Cube and endured a very public breakup with songstress Erykah Badu.

He’s just released what many say is his best album yet, Be, which was produced entirely by Kanye West and friend J Dilla (Jay Dee, formerly of Detroit’s Slum Village). The 11-song album is focused, and long on integrity.

And there’s irony in Common’s tenure; he’s such a rap everyman that his humility is actually marketable. This is a weird thing because in rap, violence and greed are, uh, common marketing points. It’s a dumb, dismal sign of the times.

Common has sold 479,000 copies of Be, according to Nielsen SoundScan, since its May release. Modest numbers for 50 Cent, but blazing for this dude, whose best-selling album barely scaled the gold mark (500,000 copies).

“This is one of the best points, to date, in my career,” Common says. “We’re grateful that the record is selling.”

From a commercial standpoint, Common’s success is odd — he writes openly about love, fidelity and God. Does the heightened awareness of his music suggest that hip hop is evolving?

“I believe so,” Common says. “I believe there’s a market for mature hip hop people, 30 and above. We had to discover it, though, ’cause everybody kept sayin’ that hip-hop is young people’s music. And it is, but it’s also a mature, growing music, and a growing culture. My fans don’t wanna hear rap that ain’t sayin’ nothin’.”

Common says he recognizes the fickle nature of the record biz, and for financial (and altruistic) reasons he’s spent the last few years using his celebrity to leverage investments outside of, but influenced by, hip hop.

He’s written three children’s books that address issues of self-esteem. “I’m in the process of working on a fourth,” he says. “It’s about a little girl with AIDS. My stories deal with situations where children are able to love themselves and grow.”

He has real estate ventures and stocks. He launched a hat company, Soji, earlier this year.

Then there was his very public liaison with Badu, a relationship many fans said was derailing him. (Outsiders claimed the same of Outkast’s André 3000 when he dated Badu.) The relationship was serious, and he recorded his most eclectic album, 2002’s Electric Circus, during that time. The record wasn’t well-received. Badu and Common split two years ago, but remained friends.

The rapper offers a slight laugh when asked if having broken up with Badu had anything to do with Be being his best work. (André 3000 did his best stuff after his Badu period.)

“Only one person said something similar to that while we was makin’ Be. Kanye. He was like, ‘Yo, that’s OK, man. You gon’ do some of your best stuff. Just like what happened with André.’

“In that situation — in love and stuff — it was one of those situations where I don’t care what people say. I’m in love. I’m secure. I don’t care.”

Badu acknowledges that the public scrutiny of their relationship makes them more interesting to their fans, but hopes the media attention doesn’t distract people from their music.

“Ninety-nine percent of the stuff people hear is exaggerated by journalism,” she says. “But then, it is entertaining.”

There are no stats that track the number of rappers who smile on album covers, but there aren’t many happy faces. On Be’s cover, Common sports a Midwest-sized grin. And why the hell not? Dude’s successful on his own terms.

When Common hits the Motor City, he’ll share the love with those who have made the city a kind of second home for him. He calls Jay Dilla a brother. Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick is an old schoolmate from Florida A&M University. His fanbase here is huge. On stage, he’s known to freestyle lines about Seven Mile and other Detroit landmarks.

Indeed, a common dude.


Thursday, July 28, at the Royal Oak Music Theatre (318 W. Fourth St., Royal Oak; 248-399-2980) on the New Jazz Philosophy Tour. John Legend and De La Soul are featured performers.

Khary Kimani Turner is a freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]
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