Common: “I needed to unlearn some of the things I thought I had to be as a black person”

Releasing his 12th album in 27 years, Common talks to NME about personal growth, the Soulquarians, Nipsey Hussle and why he still loves '...H.E.R.'

Hip-hop has more than its fair share of quotable lyrics. Among them are the conflicted lines of Jay-Z’s ‘Moment of Clarity’ where the legendary MC opts to abandon appeasing rap purists in favour of lining his pockets. “Truthfully I wanna rhyme like Common Sense/ But I did five mill’ — I ain’t been rhyming like Common since,” he raps, cleverly playing on both the current and former aliases of Chicago rap luminary Lonnie Rashid Lynn.

But while Jay’s witty wordplay shone a much deserved light on Common, alerting a world outside of the hip-hop community to his talents, it also felt like an indictment, like prioritising lyrics wasn’t as important as a person’s financial status. Featured on his supposed retirement album, 2003’s ‘The Black Album’, Jay, ironically, would later return more lyrically-focused and go on to be universally recognised as one of rap’s most gifted wordsmiths. But Common, he’s always been that.

Even when crossing over into acting, successfully starring in movies like John Wick: Chapter 2, Smokin’ Aces and Wanted, and authoring two books (One Day It’ll All Make Sense and Let Love Have the Last Word), hip-hop has always been there firmly glued to the front of his mind.

In 1994, he released ‘I Used to Love H.E.R.’, a love letter to hip-hop. Without doubt one of the culture’s most important musical moments, the classic track perfectly captures unconditional love and was the first of many dedications to come from the pen of the artist formerly known as Common Sense.

“It’s been one of the greatest gifts that God has given me,” Common admits, talking to us in a hotel room somewhere in depths of London’s Soho district. “There’s nothing greater. I really do feel grateful for the culture itself.”

And the Chicago lyricist is still writing love letters to hip-hop. On ‘Let Love’, his 12th studio album, he offers up the Daniel Caesar-assisted ‘HER Love’. Playing like a sequel to ‘I Used Love H.E.R.’, the J Dilla-produced dedication hears Common skillfully namecheck a variety of today’s new rappers, shouting out the likes of Lil Uzi Vert, Cardi B and Jaden Smith.

“I want it to be clear that I embrace a lot of the new artists,” he explains. “I feel like as you evolve you see things differently so I decided to write about it because I do see things in a different way… in a new way, especially in comparison to when I wrote ‘I Used to Love Her’ and when I wrote ‘Love of My Life’. Those songs are over 20 years old.”

With a few genre-defining records to his name, ‘I Used To Love H.E.R.’ is by far the most prolific. Discussed in barbershops all over America, it’s a track many MCs probably wish they had written. For Common, he wishes he’d penned Kanye West’s ‘Jesus Walks’. “I love that song,” he says, in a jovial but slightly jealous tone. “The fact that he even approached the song and wasn’t afraid to bring Jesus into it was a big deal – he was so unapologetic about it.

“And even though I’m not from New York, another record I wish I’d written is ‘N.Y. State of Mind’. Lyrically Nas was just on another level of writing with that one.”

“I really do feel grateful for the culture itself”

On Common’s 2011 album, ‘The Dreamer/The Believer’, he and Nas teamed up on the hard-hitting ‘Ghetto Dreams’. Setting the conscious raps to one side for three minutes and 54 seconds, Nas and Com wax lyrical about what it is they look for in a woman – “I want a bitch that look good and cook good/ Cinderella fancy, but she still look hood.” Over the pounding No I.D. production, the lyrical heavyweights sit perfectly in the pocket as they go back and forth, reminding everyone why they’re often considered two of the best. 

“We actually talked about doing an album together,” Common reveals. “We were gonna call it ‘Nas Dot Com’, but we just never buckled down to do it. We never really sat down and started working on it. And to be honest, a lot of my time and focus was on finishing films.” 

Nas and Common

Nas Dot Com (Credit: Jerritt Clark/WireImage)

With a huge grin on his face, he adds: “That’s why I’m really enthused about the new album and the new music because I was actually just able to focus on music again – that hasn’t happened in a long time for me.”

Another musical endeavour Common was involved in that never came to fruition was the highly touted Soulquarians album. Birthed from the conscious-driven neo soul movement that garnered mainstream success towards the end of the 90s, the collective was the brainchild of Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson of The Roots. 

Made up of a rotating list of members, the group’s key affiliates were: Questlove, Q-Tip, Erykah Badu, Bilal, Talib Kweli, Mos Def, D’Angelo, J Dilla, Roy Hargrove, James Poyser, Pino Palladino and Common. 

“I wish I’d written is ‘N.Y. State of Mind’”

They were the gatekeepers of what many at the time deemed ‘real music.’ It was avant-garde R&B, organic soul, conscious rap, jazz fusion, and many other things. It upheld a certain standard, one that was never compromised. It was full of empowerment and love. It celebrated black pride. It was responsible for giving us albums like Common’s ‘Like Water for Chocolate’, D’Angelo’s ‘Voodoo’, Mos Def’s ‘Black on Both Sides’ and Erykah Badu’s ‘Mama’s Gun’. But what about the group album they were supposed to put out that ended up disappearing into the depths of hip-hop folklore?

“I think everybody became focused on what they were doing,” explains Common. “I feel like we didn’t have a real agenda to say, ‘Okay, let’s go do this album and let’s all focus on it for like three weeks, or a month.’ We never had that. It wasn’t organised to the point where we were like, ‘Okay, let’s knock out this album,’ because if we had I think it would have been crazy.”

Common

“You gotta embrace your flaws” – Common

Listening to Common’s music you’ll know that he’s not afraid to embrace his flaws. He owns his contradictions, which in hip-hop is rare — he’s a lot like 2Pac in that sense. Regardless of the fact that he has a lot more eyes on him than the average person he knows he’s human, he knows he’s a work in progress like the rest of us.

“Because of the neighbourhood I come from and the people I grew up around you couldn’t escape your flaws,” he explains. “They were gonna let you know and they were gonna say something about them. But if you could take a joke and understand that you ain’t gotta take everything quite so seriously you’d be fine. You just gotta embrace your flaws.”

“You just gotta embrace your flaws”

The same goes for embracing unpopular opinions he might have held at an earlier stage in his career. On 2005’s ‘Real People’, Common rapped: “Black men walking wit white girls on they arms/ I be mad at em as if I know they moms.” Expressing a dislike for interracial relationships, it was something at the time that he felt strongly about. But things have changed for Common, his horizons have been broadened – as have his beliefs.

“I don’t feel that way now,” he admits. “People who wanna be with each other should be able to be with each other. I don’t have a problem with interracial relationships. I don’t have a problem with people who are in gay relationships. Be who you wanna be with.

“Where I grew up it’s very segregated and being a figure in the black community you do have a lot of responsibility. You can only speak from what you’ve experienced and knowing what your community holds you to. But at a certain point, you also start to see the world and experience new things and you see that the world is bigger than just the segregated parts of Chicago.

“Some of the things I thought I had to be as a black person, or had to be as a man, I later recognised I needed to unlearn some of that stuff.”

“People who wanna be with each other should be able to be with each other”

In an age where cancel culture is rife, where stars are losing high-profile hires based upon things they might have said when they were younger, less famous or less informed, it’s refreshing listening to Common admit that he’s moved on from such a closed minded opinion and isn’t backtracking with an excuse.

“That’s one thing I won’t ever deny myself, I really did feel that way at one point. In music, I say a lot of my thoughts and some of them I’m still figuring out,” he admits.

“But I will say this,” he continues, “I’m a man of the people. So I can’t just do it for my community, I gotta do it for the people who don’t look like me. I’m gonna do for my community, for sure. I owe that to them but if I see injustice going on in the Asian community, I need to step up. If I see what’s happening with immigrants trying to get into America and I don’t say something or do something about it then I can’t consider myself a man of the people, because that’s the people too.”

While Common is known more for his conscious raps and poetic charm, he’s no slouch on the mic when it comes to verbal combat either. After he went head to head with Ice Cube in a vicious war of words that saw him unleash his scathing ‘The Bitch In Yoo’ diss, there was no question Common could run with the big boys. Solidifying himself as more than just a conscious brother in a beanie, it was his Iverson crossing over Jordan moment – welcome to the big league, young fella, welcome to the big league.

The beauty of the exchange between the two wasn’t so much that it was raw and uncut lyricism that went straight for the jugular, it was more the fact that they kept it in on wax; it never escalated to physical violence. “I was mad at Cube. I really wasn’t happy with him and I didn’t know to what level it would get to,” Common admits. His wakeup call to what could have happened came when the untimely deaths of 2Pac and The Notorious B.I.G. shocked the world. He and Cube eventually squashed their beef and they went on to star alongside each other in the movie Barbershop: A Fresh Cut.

Common and Ice Cube

Common and Ice Cube kept their beef on record. (Credit: Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

Asking Common what advice he’d offer today’s young and embattled rappers who might find themselves forced to reach for a weapon instead of talking it out following an exchange of un-pleasantries, he points to why they got into music in the first place. 

“You got into doing music so that you could elevate yourself and so that you could escape the struggle,” he says, clearly emotionally exhausted by the string of recent gun deaths in the hip-hop community. “We can’t get caught up in the places we come from. So release it through the music and keep it moving.

“I ain’t got no time to be sitting around going back and forth with some cat and it turn into something bigger that so many people can be affected by, including my family.”

Bringing up the tragic passing of Nipsey Hussle – who was gunned down in his own community on March 31 – Common says that while he didn’t know the ‘Blue Laces’ rapper personally, he did meet him and he proved “very impactful.” To him, Hussle was bigger than music, it was the opportunities he was creating and things he was doing within his own community that set him apart from others.

“I ain’t got time to be going back and forth and it turn into something bigger that affects my family”

“That dude continues to be an inspiration,’ Com explains. “I felt the weight of his death like a lot of people in this world did, and that’s when you know somebody’s spirit is good and their soul meant a lot to a lot of people. He has people feeling like, ‘Oh man, I gotta do more.’”

A proud Chicagoan through and through, Common is also a big NBA fan. Therefore, it wouldn’t be right letting him go without ribbing him about the recent poor showing of the once great Chicago Bulls – a team he was a ball boy for as a child.

“I’m not Bulls heavy,” he mumbles, cowering behind one of his hands knowing that as a Chicago native the words he just uttered could be considered criminal. “I actually really love Steph Curry, so I like Golden State [Warriors]. He just seems like a great person, a good leader, a good human being.”

He adds that he’s also a fan of Kyrie Irving, a player who recently moved from the Boston Celtics to the Brooklyn Nets with Curry’s former teammate, Kevin Durant. “They’re gonna be nice, man. They’re gonna be real nice together,” he says, hitching his trailer to the Nets bandwagon. 

Unapologetic about his fickle fandom, for anyone wondering where to find Common next season, look no further than the Nets’ home arena. “I’ve got an apartment right down the street from the Barclays so I’m gonna be there a lot.” 

Common plays London’s O2 Shepherd’s Bush Empire on September 10. His new album ‘Let Love’ is out now.