Music: The Rapper Common He brought soul and spirituality back to hip-hop. Is there anything he can't do? By Lorraine Ali Newsweek Dec. 25, 2006 - Jan. 1, 2007 issue -
In person, Lonnie Rashid Lynn Jr. is a soft-spoken man who prays before each meal—a mix of Christian, Buddhist and Muslim rituals—and speaks lovingly of writing children's books. This may come as a surprise to people who know him professionally as Common, the Isaac Hayes-cool rapper who brought groove, soul and stealth sexuality back to hip-hop. Then again, maybe not. Common is, after all, the street-smart dude from the South Side of Chicago who has made a trademark of wearing fine Italian tweed hats on his elegantly bald head. "I guess I'm a little schizophrenic," says Common, 34, with a laugh. "People think I'm laid back or even shy in person, then they see me onstage, or hear me on my records, and it's, like, Who is that guy?"
There will be a lot more people asking that question in the new year. Common will costar with none other than Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe next fall in "American Gangster," Ridley Scott's film about New York City cops who take on a Harlem drug kingpin—Common is one of the bad guys, in case you're wondering which side of his personality he'll be tapping into. He's also playing a villain next month in "Smokin' Aces," starring Jeremy Piven as a Vegas magician who snitches on the mob. "I play a thoughtful killer, and I have to say it was really fun," says Common. "Does that scare you?" Piven, a fan of Common's music, personally lobbied to get him the part. "A lot of rappers' acting cadences are a couple clicks off," says Piven. "But Common's right there in the pocket. He's a natural."
If all this seems as if Common is going Hollywood—did we mention his new Gap ad?—don't worry. It took him 13 years and six albums to break through, so he's not about to throw all that hard work away for a little red-carpet action. The rapper is fully aware of the underground following that propped him up in the early days, and many of those discerning fans are still around. "In the beginning, only a select group was paying attention to me," he says. "Cats would come up to me and say, 'Man, you ain't getting the love that you deserve.' I'd say, 'Don't sweat it, man, it's gonna come. The fact that you even know about me means it's already happening'."
That love was quadrupled and squared in 2005 with the release of "Be," an album saturated in social commentary and deep spirituality. Common's salt-of-the-earth approach is one of the things that made him stand out in the bling-obsessed rap world. It's hard to remember the last time we heard someone skillfully rapping about such taboo subjects as peace, love and brotherhood. "Preaching turns people off," says Common. "When you want to deliver the message, let it live through example. Don't beat people over the head with it. It's like eating healthy food—you want it to taste good. You can't just give them a meal with no flavor. You've got to add that sauce."
Next on Common's menu: "Finding Forever," one of 2007's most anticipated releases. The CD, coproduced by his friend and mentor Kanye West, is due out in June. Common says it's a mix of vintage soul, progressive jazz and what he calls "futuristic boom bap." West has already proclaimed that it's the best rap album of the year—and the year hasn't even started. "I'd be lying if I said I don't want to sell millions and become a household name, but I won't lose myself to do it," says Common. "I see a lot of people in hip-hop who don't love the music. It's become the new dope game—they're in it to make money. If they could obtain that same kind of money or fame by dancing on one leg like a fool, they'd be doing that."
The rapper says there's little danger that he'll turn his back on his music. Even if he wanted to become the new Denzel, he's still that eclectic rapper from Chicago whom some studios are hesitant to take a chance on. "I'm in an in-between area as far as popularity goes," he says. "Some people know Common, some people don't. Sometimes my name gets me in the door. Or it works the other way around, and they don't want me 'cause I'm a rapper. My agent just told me he's fighting to get me in because they don't want anybody with a hip-hop background. He had to explain to them, 'He's not your regular, everyday rapper'."
But everyone else is buying, so cashing in on Common's unusual appeal can be hard to resist, especially when your business manager is—your mother. Mahalia Hines, a former primary-school teacher, is partly behind the branding of Common, which includes his authoring three children's books and designing his own hat line, Soji. "My mom said, 'You've got to multitask'," he says. "I said, 'It's creativity. I can't just flip switches.' An album is my child—I have to give it the proper attention. But I've learned how to give two, even three, children love. I just hope I don't become one of those fathers who plays favorites." Or one of those rappers who go Hollywood and never look back.