These days Common is almost as busy with his on-screen roles as he is with his music, but that has not always been the case. As he releases his 11th album, Black America Again, Common is nearing 25 years as an important and influential hip-hop artist. During this time he’s developed a reputation as an artist who is restless with settling in a comfort zone.
Common's artistic growth and maturity, from his very first recordings as an eager-to-please, squeaky-voiced Chicago newcomer to the wisdom and maturity he exudes as a multi-hyphenated artistic presence and Oscar-winner, represents an impressive career arc. Given the depth of his extensive back catalogue, you could feasibly make a list focusing on one of Common’s various incarnations without engaging with another aspect of his artistry. Over the years on record, the MC has embodied roles including the cameo scene-stealer, the sincere loverman, the linguistic wordsmith and the bohemian griot, among others. With those caveats in mind, here are just a few tracks representing these characteristics from Common’s hugely impressive discography to give you a sense of the breadth and evolution of his artistry.
Song: "Soul by the Pound" (Thump remix)
Album: Can I Borrow a Dollar?
After issuing a couple of solid if unspectacular singles from his 1992 debut, Can I Borrow A Dollar?, under the name Common Sense, this reconfigured album track was a head-turning lyrical display full of witticisms and punchlines over undeniable boom-bap beats. Bowing just after the likes of Crucial Conflict and Twista had just begun to put Chicago on the hip-hop map and well before anyone would hear of Kanye West and Chance the Rapper, this song helped to significantly boost the reputation of Chicago hip-hop and served notice that Common was just getting started.
Song: "I Used to Love H.E.R."
An allegorical ode of the hip-hop purist who is wary of capitalist influence on the culture, Common’s potential as a complete MC capable of weaving a compelling narrative was definitively confirmed on this song. Hugely influential, it’s been alluded to in countless songs since, including Erykah Badu’s Grammy-winning “Love of My Life (An Ode to Hip Hop)” and the Roots’ “Act Too (Love of My Life)” from their Grammy-winning album Things Fall Apart, songs on which Common also appears.
Here, many of the thematic streams that will figure greatly in Common’s best work begin to appear. In addition to his established inventive and witty wordplay, Common fuses his penchant for rapping frankly about his vulnerabilities (e.g. his struggles with alcohol) with a deep-seated concern for community. Fittingly, the title track of his critically acclaimed sophomore album is underpinned by the type of crate-raiding jazzy piano sample that would proliferate over the album’s duration.
Song: "Retrospect for Life" feat. Lauryn Hill
Album: One Day It'll All Make Sense
A complex and emotionally wrenching track, this is Common’s song from the perspective of a man who is wrestling with myriad emotions in the aftermath of an abortion and the effects on his relationship. Featuring Lauryn Hill (then of the Fugees) anchoring the song’s heartfelt chorus lifted from Stevie Wonder’s “Never Dreamed You’d Leave in Summer,” the track underlined Common’s increasing willingness to tackle weighty subject matter on his third album, One Day It’ll All Make Sense.
Song: "Respiration" feat. Common
Album: Mos Def and Talib Kweli Black Star
Over the years, Common has established himself as an MC who is capable of making stellar appearances on other people’s records (“The Bizness" by De La Soul, for example). There are too many to include in this list, but “Respiration” deserves a special mention because of the uniformly excellent verses delivered by Yasiin Bey (formerly Mos Def) and Talib Kweli of Black Star, along with Common. A stirring poetic paean to the good, bad and ugly of New York City (where Common had just moved at the time of recording) the song’s literary quality is so rich, it was the subject of this NPR essay by acclaimed novelist Teju Cole.
Song: "The Light"
Album: Like Water for Chocolate
Helplessly in love with Erykah Badu at the time, this is one of Common’s biggest hit singles. Everything about his giddy dedication to the relationship, including the loss for words at the end of the last verse, feels completely sincere. Produced by the late, peerless J. Dilla repurposing '70s blue-eyed soul singer Bobby Caldwell’s hit “Open Your Eyes,” it was just one example of the potent chemistry the two forged with executive producer Questlove on the diasporic, funk-fuelled, acclaimed fourth album, Like Water for Chocolate.
Song: "Come Close" feat. Mary J. Blige
Album: Electric Circus
On Electric Circus, Common issued the most adventurous and experimental music of his career, sporting collaborations with Prince and Stereolab’s Lætitia Sadier, drawing on rock, psychedelia and also swing music on the Jill Scott-featuring “I Am Music.” While reactions to the album were decidedly mixed, hindsight indicates this was a logical artistic next step for Common’s music, given the experimentation and similar personnel on Like Water for Chocolate. This rap ballad, produced by Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo of the Neptunes, proves the artistic direction on this album still holds up.
Song: "The Corner" feat. the Last Poets
With fellow Chicagoan Kanye West emerging as a force to be reckoned with, Common reconnected with the upstart MC and producer fresh off the success of his The College Dropout debut (who had challenged him to a rhyme battle when he was a teenager) to produce his Be album. The partnership was so successful, the two would continue the working relationship on Common’s next album, 2007’s Finding Forever. Featuring highlights like “The Food” and “Go!,” among many others, it was deemed a classic almost immediately upon release, reassuring those turned off by Electric Circus, while applying his wizened maturity to the gritty beats of his early career. “The Corner,” featuring proto-rap pioneers the Last Poets and a hungry West on the hook, the song is a potent distillation of this artistic approach.
Song: "Kingdom" feat. Vince Staples
Album: Nobody's Smiling
While not as commercially successful as some of his earlier albums, Common’s 2014 album Nobody’s Smiling reaffirmed Common’s commitment to his hometown of Chicago, asserting his relevance with the new generation of up-and-coming hip-hop artists. Of those, Vince Staples has been the one to capitalize the most on the exposure, emerging as a compelling artist in his own right. Like so many of Common’s videos (see the mini-movie courtroom treatment of Be’s “Testify” featuring a pre-Empire Taraji P. Henson), the lyics on “Kingdom” lend themselves to a cinematic treatment, and the Hype Williams-directed visuals accompanying the song proved to be sobering and particularly timely.
Song: "Glory" feat. John Legend
Album: Selma: Music from the Motion Picture
Featuring frequent collaborator John Legend, and taken from the motion picture Selma, “Glory” won the Oscar for best original song in 2015. While featuring a grand, sweeping production style associated with movie themes that isn’t stylistically in line with Common’s usual musical approach, his forceful delivery of lyrics, tying social and racial injustices of the past to present-day events in Ferguson, Miss., among others is powerful. Clearly, the song functions as a template for the thematic outlook of Common’s newest album, Black America Again.
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