Positivity Pays Off

In the three years since local rapper Common turned hip-hop heads toward Chicago with his positive but hard-hitting Resurrection (and its classic assessment of hip-hop’s fall from grace to greed, “I Used to Love H.E.R.”), the local scene that his moderate success boosted has nearly outstripped him. All working within the intellectually stale but more salable gangsta paradigm, Do or Die, Twista, and Crucial Conflict have released albums at least as successful as Resurrection or its 1992 predecessor, Can I Borrow a Dollar? But if the concepts of personal responsibility, tolerance, and honesty that Common continues to espouse on his long-awaited new One Day It’ll All Make Sense (Relativity) still aren’t the typical fare of Yo! MTV Raps, the Source, or Master P shout-outs, the album’s guest stars–De La Soul, Erykah Badu, Chantay Savage, A Tribe Called Quest’s Q-Tip, Lauryn Hill of the Fugees, Black Thought of the Roots, and Goodie Mobster Cee-Lo–make it 25-year-old Lonnie Rashid Lynn’s best shot yet at the big time.

Lynn (who shortened his stage name from Common Sense in 1995 after a copyright dispute with a mediocre California reggae-rock band) has come a long way since Can I Borrow a Dollar? Between that record and Resurrection he transformed himself from a brash, malt-liquor-swilling street tough into the eloquent conscience of hip-hop, and the taut funk grooves that had pulsed beneath his stiff but commanding raps gave way to more supple, jazz-tinged soundscapes. One Day It’ll All Make Sense is yet another leap forward. Though on “Real Nigga Quotes,” for instance, he’s still chiding his contemporaries (“And today if you grew up on Marvin Gaye / Why’s all you sing booty this and freak me baby?”), for the most part his messages are more universal–and his tracks more innovative–than ever.

It’s tempting to chalk this one up to Common’s adoption by the positive New York-based Native Tongues hip-hop collective, whose charter members De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest have invigorated and reinvigorated the posse for about a decade now. Common’s cameo on “The Bizness,” from De La Soul’s latest, Stakes Is High, plus heavy touring with the group introduced him to new audiences last year–not to mention many of the big names who pitched in on One Day It’ll All Make Sense. But while his benefactors’ upbeat realism was certainly an inspiration, and their interest in him is commercially invaluable, it turns out Common’s been moved by less public forces as well.

“The most important thing I learned since the last album is a new appreciation for life,” he says during a phone interview from his label’s New York office. A lifelong friend of his was shot and killed in March, and in August Common became a father. “I got more in tune with myself, reading the Bible, the Koran, books of Buddhism, Tao books…deciding who God was for myself,” he says. “I gotta step back from things sometimes and just chill and observe what’s going on. It’s like an off-season.”

But since Resurrection Common’s obviously done more than just chill. For one, he’s started studying music theory. “I’m in the music business and I don’t know the foundation,” he explains. “It’s like being a journalist and not knowing the alphabet.” His studies led him to use real instruments on the new album, and to incorporate a wider range of musical ideas: the tracks with R & B divas Badu, Hill, and Savage flavor tough hip-hop beats (mostly crafted by Chicago compatriot and producer No I.D., who recently released his own solid album, Accept Your Own & Be Yourself) with a heavy dose of soul, and on “My City,” guest MC and local poet Malik Yousef is backed by a live jazz trio. Still, the turntable wizardry of DJ Mista Sinista, from the New York scratching crew X-ecutioners (formerly X-Men), keeps all Common’s explorations solidly rooted in hip-hop.

Lyrically, too, Common has reached an epiphany or two: “People look at other artists and think, ‘Well, because Puff Daddy is winning this way, this is how I got to win; just get a steady beat and rap about partying,” he says. “A lot of hip-hop artists don’t think expressing what really exists in their life is going to get the sales or respect. But it’s you being you, and to me that’s the only way to win.” In just being himself, Common manages to take on issues that transcend race and class. In a three-part drama called “Stolen Moments,” he deals with the burglary of his apartment like a detective, coolly considering suspects and examining evidence rather than striking violent, vengeful poses. On “Retrospect for Life,” which benefits from Hill’s gospel-soaked tones, he teaches by example about abortion and parental responsibility. And on “G.O.D. (Gaining One’s Definition)” he sorts through various religions in developing his own thoughtful belief system. All in all he’s far less preachy than the likes of De La Soul, writing from experience and not omniscience.

“It’s about speaking the truth with authority and not beating around the bush,” he says. “I’m the one who’s gonna tell you that there’s a booger hanging from your nose, the same way I’d want someone to tell me.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Coommon photo by Christian Lantry.