Politicized and Commercialized: A Take On Rap Pioneer, Common
Common is now that old uncle who says wise things from "back in the day."
“I never knew a love…love…a love like this” — Common
Common, formerly known as Common Sense, is arguably one of the best rappers to come out of the `90s rap era. Most of us know him as one of the vanguards for the conscious rap music, creating a sound that we relate artists to, like Mos Def, Talib Kweli, and The Roots, from that time period.
Born in Chicago, Common released his first album in 1991 titled Resurrection that instantly became an underground hit with “I Used to Love H.E.R.,” calling out the degradation of hip-hop culture during early East Coast/West Coast rap beef days. However, it wasn’t until his first major studio album, Like Water For Chocolate, where the hit song, “The Light,” won Common major commercial success. He later went on to win a Grammy for his song with Erykah Badu called “Love of My Life,” and several albums later, Common continued to solidify his presence as a rap legend.
Yet, somewhere after Be in 2005 and before Universal Mind Control in 2008, Common started to move away from focusing on his music, and we started seeing him in more movies and later in the political spheres. In 2007, we saw Common in the movie Smokin’ Aces, in 2008 Wanted, and from 2009 until now, his movie roles outnumbered the three albums he released after Universal Mind Control. Nonetheless, Common isn’t the only artist who started transitioning from focusing on his music to other lucrative outlets.
Artists, like Ice Cube, LL Cool J, Will Smith, and Snoop Dogg, have all transitioned from creating hit songs to acting in major blockbusters or staring in TV shows; completely transitioning from the early `90s sound that made them the superstars that they are now. So, why did this happen? Maybe these artists were simply exploring other talents and discovered that they could make even more money from film/TV than music. Look at other major artists today—Rihanna took a break from making her followup album to Anti to create an entire makeup line, and has been in many (definitely not blockbusters) movies. The same can be said for rappers like 50 Cent, who hasn’t put out an album in years, but has a hit show on STARZ. People are going where the money is and pursuing their other passions, and we can’t really fault them for that. I actually remember a time when Samuel L. Jackson was pissed that rappers were jumping into the acting world.
”To take people from the music world and give them the same kind of credibility and weight that you give me, Morgan Freeman, Laurence Fishburne, Forest Whitaker— that’s like an aberration to me; you just can’t do that,” he says. ”It’s not my job to lend credibility to so-and-so rapper who’s just coming into the business.”
— Samuel L. Jackson (2002)
Common is the rapper turned actor who is one Tony award away from an EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony Award), and the unofficial ambassador of political hip-hop. During the Obama era in 2011, Common made a controversial visit to the White House where he recited a poem that brought attention to African-American injustice. Fox News went on to call him a “vile rapper,” citing his lyrics as anti-Bush. Common continued to involve himself in more moments to speak out against social and political injustices, including work on the documentary, America Divided, about mass incarceration—and creating a song for Ava Duvernay’s Netflix documentary called 13th (also about mass incarceration). He’s also been the face of many social campaign ads, like Microsoft’s 2015 Super Bowl commercial on empowerment.
This generation probably doesn’t know Common for his lyrics like: “I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want millions/More than money saved, I wanna save children/Dealing with alcoholism and Afrocentricity/A complex man drawn off of simplicity,” from the song, “The 6th Sense.” Common is a fixture now in Gap commercials, and most recently on stage next to Georgia’s gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams. Looking through his Twitter feed is like watching an ad in itself, with positive statements and videos all geared toward change.
Compassion + Action = Change
— COMMON (@common) October 30, 2018
— COMMON (@common) November 1, 2018
Five. Days. Until. Election. Day.
— COMMON (@common) November 1, 2018
While it’s a beautiful thing to watch Common use his celebrity status to take a positive stance in the world, it’s also bittersweet for those who miss his music, feeding our need for lyrical prowess and awareness. What we do have is J.Cole and Kendrick Lamar, who serve as a legacy to what Common started. It could be fair to say that his transition as a figurehead was inevitable, but is it also watering down his legacy? Could his commercialization take away from this generation connecting to his history as one of rap’s greats?
It’s hard to draw a conclusion about why this shift has happened and if this dichotomy just comes with the territory as some of our favorite `90s rappers age, but it does suck to see a lot of those artists shift gears so dramatically. In a perfect world, I’d want them to go away for years after the height of their success and come back just to do one-off performances exclusively for their nostalgic fans. It’s like Q-Tip and A Tribe Called Quest. We don’t see him often, but when we do, he is performing somewhere with Erykah Badu or Tribe at festivals or a small venue. Those who love his music come out in droves when the group performs (also because they love Tribe), and seem to always know where to find them. It’s like a second wave for him because he stays underground now with a buzz that appeals to their truest and most loyal fans.
Maybe it’s unfair to compare artists like Common to Q-Tip. However, what if Common did the same thing? (Maybe many wouldn’t call him corny or too political.)
I selfishly say we freeze our current rap greats (someone grab Kendrick Lamar), and by the time they turn 35, just like in Demolition Man, unfreeze them 20 years later—we will only let them out for underground performances.
Yep, that’s it.
— Charmaine Griffin