A young Lonnie Rashid Lynn Jr. got a career-launching co-sign from the Source magazine in 1991 and burst onto the hip-hop scene a year later with Can I Borrow A Dollar. Barely out of high school, the Chicago rapper, who went by the name Common Sense, romped through a collection of squeaky-voiced, fast-rapped pop-culture references and break beats.
Twenty years and eight albums later, Common's career has blossomed, as have his aspirations. He finds himself with the type of longevity, résumé and relevance that few rappers have achieved in a genre that aggressively resists maturation.
Dec. 20 marks the release of Common's new album, The Dreamer/The Believer. Sonically unified and achieving the difficult balance of sounding neither dated nor trendy, it's a solid release on the surface. Folks who hopped aboard the fan train after the Gap ads will be pleased, as will those who waited a long time for Common to reunite with producer No I.D.
But a closer examination reveals not only some unfortunate lyrical shortcomings but also what appears to be an uneasy transition for Common, who turns 40 in March, into the small club of middle-aged rappers thriving creatively and professionally.
The Common brand has evolved from underground rapper to thoughtful poet to style icon and sex symbol. Along the way he was saddled with the "conscious" label that burdened many of his peers who also had the temerity to express the sort of depth that is often resisted in the rap marketplace.
Common's relationship with being "conscious" went from reluctance to grudging acceptance and finally full embrace, which coincided with the process of personal growth that he documented in his recordings. But he is still having trouble seamlessly incorporating his cerebral and spiritual sides with the other aspects of his personality.
Why can't a reasonable individual enjoy both books and booty — or spiritual pursuits and pursuit of spirits — and channel them into his or her music? In a post-Outkast-and-Kanye West world, that tired question shouldn't have to be asked anymore. But In the case of The Dreamer/The Believer, the integration isn't working. Common doesn't sound as if he's sharing the naturally variant facets of who he is; he sounds like he's trying too hard to convince the listener of their plausibility.
Earlier, Common regularly mixed raw couplets with his thoughtful ones and rarely struck an awkward note, at least not until a pair of unfortunate clunkers that he delivered on Kid Cudi's 2009 "Make Her Say," when he instructs a sexual conquest to "get up on this conscious d—k." Today Common is struggling more acutely with topical tone deafness.
Guest poet Maya Angelou agrees: She is now disturbed that the song "The Dreamer," for which she penned a custom verse, contains language she finds offensive. It's language that the rapper has always used, but why include the iconic poet on a song that also includes throwaway lines such as "mad hoes like they throwing tantrums"?
Missteps like this are sprinkled throughout the record, and they're part of a larger problem of lazy lyrical displays ("I get my drink on like a coaster"). But the song "Sweet" feels like a full psychotic break from what was before just a mild case of personality fragmentation.
It's the traditional emcee boast against an unnamed adversary taken to an odd, almost comical extreme for an entertainer who performs at the White House and earns millions. It's literally a rant (rumor has it, fellow rapper Drake is his target), as he abandons rapping for a full minute and simply shouts the types of threats one hears when bouncers are trying to break up a fight at the club at 2 a.m.: "You get in my presence you gonna feel like a little hoe! You come around my crib you get your s—t took!"
Common's philanthropic work, recently penned memoirs and political activism suggest that he's an entertainer who's reaching for membership in an exclusive group: rap artists who continue to make music but also become influencers of culture and society. A few of his peers have done the same, although none have reached the heights of the entertainers of the past who used their celebrity to promote social change.
Jay-Z still has a pen game as sharp as his business acumen, but he has simply shifted his musical focus from rapping about hustling to rapping about his legally acquired riches. He currently chooses not to leverage his success beyond the goal of making more money. Will Smith keeps threatening to record again, but he's got it too good as one of the most successful actors on the planet. One could say that he had to leave hip-hop behind to truly be great.
Chuck D is another example. But while his musical output will never be as impactful as it was during Public Enemy's zenith, at least it's consistent with the rest of his work, from punditry to nonprofit involvement.
It may be too lofty an expectation for Common to walk in the footsteps of the Harry Belafontes and Ossie Davises of past generations, but it's hard not to compare his shortcomings with their accomplishments as he grows as an artist and a public figure. It's even harder to believe that none of the hip-hop generation's artists have been able to carry the mantle of their forebears. Perhaps the least we can ask is that more of them can learn to be comfortable acting their age.
Rhome Anderson is a contributor to The Root.