[Part 1 of 2] Love is vulnerability, a quality that veteran emcee Common has never publicly lacked. Common, the mike-rocking Florida A&M dropout, Kanye’s leap-frogged prototype, has revealed on record his former partner’s abortion, his battle with alcoholism, his pimping propensity, his disdain for cup-swaying crunksters, his devotion to hip-hop, his all-consuming love for a certain green-eyed chanteuse.
Not quite the rap heartthrob, Common served a modest but respectable stream of head-nodding suitors until he threw a little too much of himself into the ring. Electric Circus (2002), the work of an earnest and ambitious artist, appealed to neither critic nor consumer. Tag on outfits by Ashaka Givens, thought to be inspired by the enamoring rumored-man-eater Erykah Badu, and love-phobic hip-hoppers damn near wrote Common off.
It’s been three short but eventful years, and Common, knowing full well what love is, has endeavored to resurrect himself. With his sixth album, Be, set to drop May 24 on Kanye West’s Geffen imprint, G.O.O.D. Music, he enlists his new boss for most of the soulful score and past-collaborator Jay Dee for a few choice appearances. One of the gritty Detroit musicologist’s selections is "Love Is," a poignant jazz-speckled track for the stubborn Chicagoan. Common rhymes, "If love is a place, I would go again," unruffled by the Electric Circus backlash. Common holds firm to the ethos of his 1994 classic "I Used to Love Her," but this time he plainly translates it for the contemporary consumer. Prefix’s Jalylah Burrell caught up with Common at the height of Be‘s immense buzz to get a sketch of who he be, where he’s been and where he and hip-hop are going.
[more:]Prefix Magazine: I just got back to Brooklyn from Chicago, and there is really a lot of anticipation for your album. An indie deejay was telling me he couldn’t remember the last time he so anticipated a record. Given the serious criticism of Electric Circus, how does that make you feel?
Common: It’s always good to get love. I’m excited. I feel like a new artist. I feel hungry. It’s a beautiful thing to have people being, “Yo, when the album coming?” Cats on the street, just real niggas on the street, just stop me like, “Yo, when the album coming?”
PM: Can you break down the meaning of the album title?
Common: [It] means to do without trying hard. You don’t have to try hard to be what you are. Just be. This album was about being natural and creating music that felt natural to me … and we didn’t try hard. I didn’t try to innovate and make a whole new sound or show that I’m one of the new fresh artists and most innovative artists. We just created music that felt right to us. We just let it be.
All the songs that came together pretty much were just that: instinctual, [the] natural feeling of creating music. Any song that was taking too long, taking too much to do, didn’t make the album. It just wasn’t that spirit to it. This spirit was really about natural things coming together and accepting it for what it is.
PM: Do you feel like in the past you had tried too hard?
Common: It wasn’t that I tried so hard, but I would always make an attempt to create innovative things. I would be like, “Okay, because I have done this album, let me do something entirely new.” And I think that was right for the time, because that’s what I knew hip-hop to be — something that’s creative and you always want to come with something fresh. I always felt like people would be bored if I did the same thing, and I would get bored. Sometimes the attempts came out right, and sometimes they was okay. Each album I did say, “Yo, I don’t want to repeat anything I’ve done before. I want to create some whole new sound.”
PM: You made reference to tracks that didn’t make the album. How many tracks altogether did you guys record?
Common: We recorded about seventeen tracks. It wasn’t a whole lot that we did. We recorded over a spread out amount of time because Kanye was touring a lot and doing a lot of things, promoting his album and the success of his album. J-Dilla, who also produced, was doing a lot of production and also was dealing with a sickness. He was sick for a while, and when he got better we was able to work more.
PM: On Be, your intensity and enduring enthusiasm and earnestness is incredibly apparent and has some people forecasting this to be a rap classic. Where does that energy, earnestness and enthusiasm come from?
Common: It just comes from being a hungry artist, loving music. It comes from God and faith, being like, I believe in myself. I do believe. I believe God put me here to do this, so let me just acknowledge and pursue my dreams and take the roller coasters of life and music, and this music career and be who you are, be hungry.
I always want to grow, and I just got hungry, I guess, ‘cause people was talking a lot of shit. It gave me some inspiration, too, but more than anything it’s just about me creating music that I love and living out my dreams.