The crash and tinkle of china. Blaring Muzak. The pneumatic whoosh of a revolving door. A private booth, curtained. A crusty sliced baguette in a wicker basket. Two glasses of water: one empty, the other full, spreading a halo of condensation on the white tablecloth.
The interior of McCormick and Schmick’s Seafood in Chicago is built of oak so glossy it seems to emit its own soft light, an illusion enhanced by the amber-tinted sconces lining the walls. Even at the odd dining hour of 2:30 in the afternoon, the restaurant is bustling with activity. White-smocked waiters dash to and fro, carrying elaborate trays across the gap in the booth’s curtain. I’m waiting for Common, née Lonnie Rashid Lynn, Jr., a 34-year-old veteran rapper and novice actor from the South Side of this very city.
On New Year’s Eve weekend, the theme of waiting, as it relates to Common, is apt. I’ll have to wait until March to see if Finding Forever, a new studio album with returning co-producer Kanye West, will live up to the high standard set by the duo’s Grammy-nominated 2005 collaboration, Be. And I’ll have to wait until the late January release of star-studded crime comedy Smokin’ Aces to find out whether Common is an actor or a rapper who acts. But for now, I’m just waiting for some food. I’m seriously considering drinking Common’s water when, suddenly, he appears from behind the curtain and climbs into the booth.
He’s alone, casual in a blue cable-knit sweater. His countenance presents the same easy smile and sparkling eyes that sold untold acres of khaki in a series of high-profile Gap ads last year. Just as I begin to ask Common about Finding Forever, our waiter materializes. “We’ve been waiting for you forever!” he exclaims. Common laughs good-naturedly. “We’re trying to find forever,” he says, “but instead we’re waiting forever.” Like the best jokes, the comment’s casual surface masks a profundity. He orders a liter of distilled water.
Is there any meat in the clam chowder? There is a little bacon in it. Oh yeah, no—do you have any other soup? That would be all of the soups today. OK. Well, let me have the mixed green salad—there’s no meat on that salad right? And the salmon—does that come with vegetables? Broccoli and mashed potatoes. Instead of mashed potatoes, can I get spinach? Or do you have corn? We can do asparagus and carrots. But you don’t have any corn? Uh-uh.
Common is fond of food metaphors. “When we order this meal,” he tells me, “I definitely want to get something that’s good, but I want something that’s healthy too.” He’s talking about his balanced lifestyle—he was a vegan for three years—and his music, soul-inflected hip-hop that blends the sensuous with the instructive, the visceral with the spiritual. Common has been a consistent presence in hip-hop since the release of his 1992 LP Can I Borrow a Dollar? (under the name Common Sense). “The whole business has changed since then,” he says. “It wasn’t that long ago when I could go to a radio station and if the DJ liked my song, he could play it. Now it has to be on a playlist and the label has to approve it, and it’s being revealed to me that radio doesn’t control people’s success as much any more.”
Promotional logistics isn’t the only area in which rap has undergone a violent sea-change during the last 10 years. The mainstream had space for politically voluble hip-hop in the early ’90s: The cleansing fire of Public Enemy and N.W.A. still lingered; groups like A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul were on the rise. In the aughties, rap remains socially charged, but its conscience has receded behind an iron arras of nihilism, conspicuous consumption, misogyny and violence. Yet Common, an everyman rapping about love, spirituality, fidelity and social justice, has managed to flourish in the heyday of superhuman crime rap.
Common’s mainstream breakthrough was Be, for which he hooked up with ultra-hot producer Kanye West, a Chicago native whose blend of sped-up soul samples and crisp drums was the perfect match for Common’s supple, jazzy flow. “’Ye and me, it’s like the foundation,” he enthuses. “I met him here [in Chicago] through No I.D., who produced my first three albums. Kanye was younger, but he was friends with No I.D. and would come around while we were making music. He was always hungry, always confident.” We both chuckle at the understatement. “He had potential, but potential with a purpose is what made him who he is today.”
Purity of purpose is among Common’s chief concerns. “I feel like we all have a purpose in life,” he explains, “and through my music and art, I want people from all walks of life to become enlightened, and enjoy, and be entertained and encouraged.” On Finding Forever—which, besides West, will include contributions from D’Angelo, will.i.am and the late J Dilla—Common feels as if his purpose is to craft “timeless music,” just as he strove to on Be. “You can hear a continuity, meaning something progressive, but with a certain boom-bap element,” he says of Finding Forever. “Me and Kanye have a chemistry that’s going to feel familiar.”
Finding Forever is about “how we exist forever through this music if we just find this place where it’s pure.” To Common, music that lacks purity is “the moment’s hit; they play it on the radio and it has a huge audience, but it just passes away. There are certain songs that were big hits in 2004, but if you hear them now, they don’t have a feeling about them. They don’t even take you back to that time. Where I can hear Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall or N.W.A., and it takes me to an emotional place in my life, because the music has that emotion to it. If you look at hip-hop as a whole, you don’t feel that love for art, that purity in the music. It definitely has become the new dope game, a way to make money, which is one reason why it doesn’t have the impact that it had before.”
Of course, he’s talking about emotional impact, not cultural impact, which rap enjoys in greater measure than ever before. “This culture is obviously strong,” he acknowledges, “affecting the way people dress and talk. This is a powerful voice, the young black voice of America.” This brings us around to the problem of crystallization: When the “young black voice of America” is presented as monolithically criminal, negative stereotypes are reinforced. Where do we draw the line between paying heed to disenfranchised voices and glorifying toxic social patterns? Common makes a careful and precarious distinction between crime rap that comes from the heart and crime rap that’s fashionably lucrative.
“Anybody who has a voice, you’ve got to let them tell their story,” he says. “But they should also recognize that there are certain individual characteristics they have and need to express. You have to look at your voice and make sure you are truly being you. The problem with a lot of the drug rap or party songs is that you don’t get to hear the other side of black culture. We do have a set of people that deal with the pain and struggles of being in a drug-infested, gang-infested world”—Common’s speech is accumulating a passionate cadence, and he slips into another of his favorite rhetorical devices, the litany—“but at the same time, there’s black people that work hard every day, and take care of their families; that work for the Chicago Transit Authority, or do construction work, or pick up trays; that create new inventions for Apple; that paint. We have a diverse culture, but hip-hop is pretty much just showing one side of it. You feel hurt sometimes, you cry sometimes; sometimes you lie, sometimes you want to punch people; you feel pleasure, you feel cocky. We’re human.”
Peace. Hey. Yeah, if they can. Yeah. Definitely. OK. Word. What time is it now? Mm-hmm. Yeah. I’ll probably think about 3:45. OK. Yeah. I’m in an interview now. At 3:30 she can start setting up. Can we do it outside? Yeah. Well, let’s just do it outside in the city of Chicago somewhere. A parking garage. If she finds a place outside, I’ll do it. All right, love.
Common is polite—he always excuses himself before answering his cell. If the music industry hasn’t divested him of his humility yet, it’s unlikely Hollywood will either. Aside from his performance in Dave Chapelle’s Block Party, the lifelong movie fanatic (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and On the Waterfront are his favorites) is just beginning to explore the other side of the silver screen. He talks about working on the sets of Smokin’ Aces and American Gangster with earnest awe. For Common, acting, like music, is all about passion. He took classes before he started auditioning for roles, to make sure it was something he could be passionate about, which it emphatically was. He loves his acting classes, attending whenever his schedule permits, and he enjoys working with a cast. “I like being part of a team; I played sports,” he says. “When you’re making music, the producers are your team, but everything falls on your shoulders.”
Directed by Joe Carnahan, and starring Ryan Reynolds, Jeremy Piven, Ben Affleck, Andy Garcia, Jason Bateman, Alicia Keys and Ray Liotta, Smokin’ Aces is about ex-mobster-turned-Vegas-magician Buddy “Aces” Israel (Piven), who turns evidence on his former employers and finds himself caught in an intersecting network of plots variously predicated upon his doom and salvation. Common plays Israel’s right-hand man, Sir Ivy. “I love that he’s a dark character that’s sensitive,” Common says. “He’s one of the sharpest killers in the movie, but he’s very intelligent and warrior-like; he has a heart.”
Common will also inhabit the criminal mind in Ridley Scott’s American Gangster this fall. The film is about a narcotics officer (Russell Crowe) struggling to bring down Harlem heroin kingpin Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington). Common plays Lucas’ brother, Turner, a role he jumped on for the chance to work with Washington (from whom he learned not just about acting, but about “how to be a responsible man and a good leader”) and for the script’s greyscale treatment of good and evil. “It’s contrasting two people,” he muses. “One is bringing in heroin in caskets, but he’s going to church and taking care of his family; the other guy has problems, like womanizing, but he’s working hard to bring down the guys he feels are doing wrong.”
If all these gangster roles seem like a stretch for the anti-gangster rapper, Common sees no conflict of interest: “When I’m a character,” he explains, “I’m another person. I’ve been told that every character has to have some part of you in him, and you portray that character for whatever reasons you find purposeful. … I just try to bring those human elements to each character. They’re not going to be me, and that’s the fun part about it: I get to explore sides of myself that I don’t express.”
There it is again: purpose. Common’s longevity has a lot to do with his life-affirming morality and musical gifts, but it has just as much to do with his unremitting sense of personal purpose, of meaning in a meaningless age. It doesn’t matter so much whether that purpose is to find forever or to just be. Conviction is a rare commodity, and as long as it’s there, we feel it. Whether Common’s is refracted through music or film, it’s palpable and refreshing. And he knows it. “I always
wanted to be important in hip-hop,” he says, “to leave a mark and to help people. It’s hard to see what you are in the world and the music business, the way you serve, but if you know your purpose and create art you feel is pure and sincere, you let the people decide who you are at that point. You don’t stop and look too much; you have your purpose and go for it.”