In 1992, 20-year old Chicago-born and raised freestyler Common Sense (as he was first known) could hardly imagine where the future would take him. One decade later, his heartfelt rhymes and uncompromising hip-hop attitude earned him his first Grammy Award (Best R&B Song for the #1 “Love of My Life (An Ode to Hip-Hop)” with Erykah Badu), and the first of several high-profile movie roles. Film has expanded the scope of his art into new directions, climaxing with his part in American Gangster, starring Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe, opening November 2007. Four months earlier, Common’s most recent album, Finding Forever (produced mostly by Kanye West) debuted at #1 the Billboard Top 200 Album chart – Common’s first #1 debut. In the school of hip-hop noted by the positivism of such literate (and often jazz-influenced) artists as De La Soul, Digable Planets, the Roots, A Tribe Called Quest, Pharcyde, Jurassic 5, Gang Starr, Mos Def, Talib Kweli and others – Common has staked out his own unique and important position. That position is explored fully in the CD booklet liner notes essay written by Leah Rose.
The road to Relativity began on Chicago’s teeming South Side, where Lonnie Rashid Lynn, Jr. (son of pro basketball player Lonnie Lynn) was raised by his single mother, a doctor, in an environment isolated from the feuding East Coast and West Coast rap scenes. He admired mc’s from both factions – Rose’s liner notes cite “Big Daddy Kane, KRS-One, and the other MCs he grew up admiring … everything from Rakim to N.W.A.” He was even in a high school rap group of his own before going off to college. At Florida A&M, he continued to write and record demo material. In October 1991, some of his rhymes were featured in The Source magazine’s “Unsigned Hype” column, which led to a signing offer from Relativity, and a slot on its primarily core-metal label, Combat.
Dropping out of college to the disappointment of his mom, Common packed off to New York with an entourage of 15 Chicago friends, and his producers No I.D. (aka Immenslope) and Twilite Tone. Can I Borrow A Dollar? was recorded in a fast two weeks at Calliope Studio (where A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul made some of their early records). The rapper was barely out of his teens when the album was issued in September 1992, and spun off two well-received hits on the Rap charts, “Take It EZ” and “Breaker 1/9.” They were distinguished by their decidedly breezy jazz-inflected non-gangsta approach – at a time when gangsta was dominating rap.
Three more tracks from Can I Borrow A Dollar? are included on thisisme then: “Soul By The Pound” (the third single, and first to cross over from Rap to the R&B chart; from this point onward, most of his singles were crossovers), “Charms Alarm,” and “Heidi Hoe,” produced by the Beatnuts, the album’s only outside production.
A fast-track process of socio-cultural, religious and musical maturation took place over the next two years, which ran the gamut from absorbing John Coltrane (who “influenced the way he put his rhymes together,” Rose writes) to exploring Islam via the teachings of the Koran. This personal growth took shape on October 1994’s Resurrection, the second Relativity album, as he moved over to the Ruthless imprint. Most significant was the single “I Used To Love H.E.R.,” his personification of hip-hop as a lover who has become debased and exploited – an allegory that was openly critical of West Coast gangsta style.
“I Used To Love H.E.R.” sparked a well-publicized cross-country feud with Ice-Cube that was eventually mediated by Louis Farrakhan. In addition to the follow-up title tune single, “Resurrection,” the album is represented by “Book Of Life” and the track that gives this compilation its title, “thisisme.” The success of Resurrection also had another unexpected result, when a reggae group named Common Sense threatened to sue unless he changed his name – thus, he became Common.
By the mid-’90s, so-called ‘alternative rap’ had come into its own, eschewing lurid themes of misogynist sex and violence, in favor of thoughtful rhymes that assayed social and political and interpersonal consciousness. Common was at the center of this movement, and one of the reasons that One Day It’ll All Make Sense, his next album, was not completed until September 1997, was because of the quorum of like-minded hip-hop and R&B artists who wanted to get on-board. Another reason was the profound effect on Common of the news that his girlfriend was pregnant (his daughter was born soon after the album was released). Impending fatherhood added another layer of responsibility and introspection to Common’s poetry.
thisisme then includes five high-profile guest appearances from some (some!) of Common’s collaborators on One Day It’ll All Make Sense, starting with “Retrospect For Life” with Lauryn Hill – who gave birth to her own first child the month before the album release. The track was issued as a non-chart single with a video directed by Hill. The second single was “Reminding Me (Of Sef)” with fellow Chicago R&B singer Chantay Savage, which became a Top 10 Rap hit.
Other notable partners from One Day It’ll All Make Sense heard on this compilation are neo-soul icon Erykah Badu (“All Night Long”), whose debut album was issued at the beginning of 1997; Atlanta’s Goodie Mob heavyweight Cee-Lo Green (“G.O.D. [Gaining One’s Definition]”), nearly a decade before Gnarls Barkley; and New Yorker Q-Tip (Intro/Outro on “Stolen Moments Pt. III”), the founding leader of A Tribe Called Quest, who was about to begin his solo career in 1998, when the Tribe disbanded. In 2007, Common and Q-Tip have organized a supergroup named the Standard.
The audio portion of thisisme then ends with “High Expectations,” Common’s contribution to the Relativity movie soundtrack of Soul In The Hole, a 1997 documentary about Brooklyn playground basketballers who dream of turning pro. Common was in the company of Wu Tang Clan, Dead Prez, M.O.P., Big Pun, Exzibit, Mobb Deep, and others.
Following his initial success at Relativity, Common was signed to major label MCA in 1999, where he scored an R&B hit single with “The Light” in 2000. It sent his first album for the label, Like Water for Chocolate, to Top 5 R&B and RIAA gold. In 2002, Common’s Electric Circus album managed a Top 20 R&B hit with “Come Close To Me” featuring Mary J. Blige. But it was Common’s collaboration with Erykah Badu on “Love Of My Life (An Ode To Hip-Hop)” from the Fox/MCA soundtrack of the Taye Diggs movie Brown Sugar, that won him his first Grammy Award: Best R&B Song, as a writer (shared with Badu). Interestingly, the song was an extension of the personification concept first suggested in 1994, on “I Used To Love H.E.R.”
Common was heard from again in 2005 with Be, his first album produced by Kanye West, a #1 R&B/#2 pop smash that passed the RIAA gold mark without the benefit of a major hit single – although “Testify,” “The Corner,” and “They Say” collected nearly a dozen BET, Grammy, NAACP Image, MTV VMA, Soul Train, and Vibe Awards nominations. To his credit, Common had become a true album artist, who had transcended the singles market – as proved by the success of Finding Forever this past summer.
With music as his artistic foundation, Common has followed the footsteps of other rappers (such as Ludacris and Mos Def) into film. His first support role was last year’s Las Vegas-based action-comedy Smokin’ Aces, starring Ray Liotta and Jeremy Piven. Following his current role in American Gangster, Common will be seen in two films next year: The Night Watchman, a rogue cop thriller with Keanu Reeves, Hugh Laurie, and Forest Whitaker, written by James Ellroy; and Wanted, the adaptation of the graphic comic novel, starring Angelina Jolie and Morgan Freeman.
“Common’s first three albums are truly a coming of age,” Leah Rose concludes. “As one of rap music’s most talented MCs, he literally grew up in the music that his loyal listeners still cherish more than a decade after its initial release. This collection of songs draws from that much missed era in hip-hop, when lyrical prowess was the hallmark of a rapper’s success.”
“It would be hard to imagine hip-hop without Common Sense.” – Leah Rose