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Common: 'Conscious' Sound, Uncommon Success

Common's latest album rose rapidly to the top of the Billboard 200 chart.
Common's latest album rose rapidly to the top of the Billboard 200 chart.
You know, I'm going to laugh and have fun too, but something has to be said that has some substance, because this is a platform, and the power that we have with words and with this microphone is phenomenal.

The hip-hop artist known simply as Common is anything but. He's the author of children's books, he has his own line of designer hats and he's acted in films. Then, of course, there's his music.

He shuns popular trends in hip hop and focuses on some of the art form's core principles: storytelling and presenting music with a message.

Common, born Lonnie Rashid Lynn Jr., is part of a tradition of so-called "conscious artists" like Dead Prez, The Coup and Mos Def who try to bring social and cultural messages back to the airwaves. Though now he embraces being a conscious artist, there was a time when he shunned the label as pigeonholing his music.

"But then I looked at music abroad, and... when I think of conscious artists, I think of Bob Marley, I think of Marvin Gaye, I think of Bob Dylan, I think of Public Enemy," he says. "I mean, when I started thinking about it, I was like 'OK, if throughout time I get labeled as a conscious artist, I'll be very much celebrated in a way, and honored.'"

When Common came onto the hip-hop scene in the early 1990s (as Common Sense), gangsta rap was becoming a part of mainstream America.

"I was thinking about how hip-hop was losing its pure heart and its soul," he says. "And it is like a person, that, you know, has the opportunity to make mistakes, but can keep improving."

His music is providing the therapy many loyal fans feel is missing in mainstream hip-hop right now. A number of his songs deal with current dilemmas people face, like the conflict a man feels after his unborn child is aborted ("Retrospect for Life," from One Day It'll All Make Sense).

But aside from a handful of songs, you probably won't hear Common's message on the airwaves.

"Just by the type of music he's putting out there, it isn't the type of music that is going to get a lot of radio play," says Alvin Blanco, music editor for allhiphop.com. "So if you're going to be a Common fan, you're going to have to search it out."

Common can't fully explain the general lack of attention paid him, but has his thoughts.

"As a popular genre of music, hip-hop has been lately having one sound, and it has been somewhat redundant," he says. Common is referring to the current dominance of Southern hip-hop — often criticized for looping the same beat under rhymes that are devoid of substance. He feels that many artists, not just rappers from the South, are not being mindful of how potentially damaging some of their lyrics are."

"Man, if I get a chance to speak on the microphone, I've got to say something somewhere in there," Common says. "You know, I'm going to laugh and have fun, too, but something has to be said that has some substance, because this is a platform, and the power that we have with words and with this microphone is phenomenal."

Which isn't to say that Common wants to remain underground. Hitmaker Kanye West, who has produced much of his most recent material, is credited with polishing Common's sound and introducing him to a wider audience.

In fact, Common was even thinking of dumping a song from his latest CD because it wasn't "commercial" enough. The song "Black Maybe" talks about the hardships endured by people of color. But one of Common's early producers, known as No I.D., persuaded him to keep the song on the album.

"And I was like, 'Why are you throwing this song off?'" No I.D says. "And he was like, 'What do you mean?' And I was like, 'Don't forget, people look at you as a conscious rapper, as a rapper saying things. Like, don't stray away from it too much.'"

While reaching a wider audience is a goal of his, Common thinks his status as an underground artist has been an asset in his newest business venture: acting. He appeared in a commercial for The Gap last holiday season, and he's in the much-anticipated film American Gangster with Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe, out in November.

Music, however, remains his first love. And even if he never has a platinum record, he understands his place in hip-hop.

"The impact of a conscious artist is necessary, and it ripples through the world," he says. "And it's people with platinum plaques that are forgotten. In fact, that's why I named my album Finding Forever, because that's what I was thinking about: What did I want to contribute to this world that would live beyond my physical existence?"

There's no way to tell whether people will be talking about it far in the future, but many are talking about it right now. Finding Forever currently sits atop Billboard's Top 200 Albums chart.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Brakkton Booker is a National Desk reporter based in Washington, DC.