Status Ain't Hood

Common’s August Greene Project Is A Blissful Middle-Aged Jazz-Rap Jam Session

If you wanted to argue that Common was a corny motherfucker — an argument that you could make without stretching any bounds of credulity — you wouldn’t have to look any further than last weekend’s Oscars. Common, who’s already won one Best Original Song Oscar, was nominated for another, for a song called “Stand Up For Something” that appeared on the soundtrack of the biopic Marshall. Common co-wrote that song with Dianne Warren, the veteran crafter of showstopping power ballads who wrote “How Do I Live” for LeAnn Rimes and “I Don’t Want To Miss A Thing” for Aerosmith. It’s a song that was created explicitly to win an Oscar, and it lost. When Common performed it, he opened with a few generically meaningful bars about the NRA and Dreamers. Then, soon after, Common also showed up in a Microsoft ad, using that exact same self-impressed slam-poetry diction to rhapsodize about the wonders of technology. When your protests and your advertising copy don’t sound different from one another, you might not be saying a damn thing.

That’s always the way with Common. He really does have a strong urge toward genuine transcendence, but that urge coexists alongside cornball tendencies and mercenary commercial instincts. Back when he was a young insurgent rap hope, he couldn’t make sincere and poetic comments about the direction of hip-hop without righteously riling up a near-his-peak Ice Cube. Not long after that, when he was making important points about desperation in the black community, he was also coming off as a pro-life finger-wagger. At the height of his Kanye West-abetted commercial peak, Common showed up in a Gap commercial that made everyone cringe.

Common got made fun of a lot for wearing paisley pants and elaborate scarves while he was dating Erykah Badu, but, I mean, he was dating Erykah Badu. Electric Circus, the album he released during his paisley-pants moment, was mocked as a mess, but it had Dilla and the Neptunes and Stereolab; it anticipated our current moment a lot better than, for instance, Universal Mind Control, the hornily clumsy club-rap album that Common released in 2008. My favorite embarrassing Common moment is an underrated one: when he played T.I.’s father in American Gangster, which seemed plausible even though Common’s only nine years older than T.I.

All of which is to say: Of course Common followed up that goofy-ass Oscar night by releasing his best music in years. August Greene, the supergroup that pairs Common with jazz stars Robert Glasper and Karriem Riggins, released their self-titled album a mere five days after the Oscars. It’s gorgeous. Common might be the most visible member of the group, but it’s cool to hear him in an ensemble setting, letting his voice sink into tracks, filling space and not necessarily needing to make a grand statement every time he touches a mic. On the single “Optimistic,” a cover of a 1991 Sounds Of Blackness song, Common is there to add a quick voice to what’s essentially a solo showcase for guest singer Brandy. There are instrumentals on the album, and Common barely shows up on the excellently titled 13-minute album closer “Swisher Suite.” He plays the background, and he’s good at it.

Common, Glasper, and Riggins all make sense together. Glasper and Riggins made their names in jazz, but they’ve both found ways to incorporate rap and R&B into their solo work, and they’ve both ventured into those worlds plenty of times. Glasper played on Kanye West’s Late Registration and Q-Tip’s The Renaissance and has toured as a part of Maxwell’s live band, while Riggins has been working with Common for years, leading his live band and contributing production to a bunch of his albums. (Riggins also co-produced Kanye West’s “30 Hours” and Earl Sweatshirt’s “Grief” and released a couple of albums on Stones Throw; he’s not exactly moonlighting within rap.) Glasper and Riggins are both younger than Common, but they’re not that much younger; Common is 46, and Glasper, the youngest of the trio, is 39. And their chemistry is loose and easy. Glasper adds all those lovely little piano accents to the tracks, and Riggins’ drumming — hard-cracking but just slightly off, more subtle than almost any other drummer I’ve heard taking on rap — might be the single best reason to hear the album.

Common, being Common, says plenty of howlingly goofy shit on August Greene. He can’t help it; it’s who he is. So he lets loose with “For centuries, they’ll remember my similes / But I metaphor more than that / No matter how rich I get, I’ma pour it back,” emphasizing the word “pour” just to make sure we get the pun. A few of his lines sound like backpack-rap parody: “The emphatical, radical, mathematical / Travel to capitals / In actual fact, extra-practical.” He calls himself a “born rebel, having my own inner-Aleppo.” He claims to be “looking past my exes like I’m YZ.” He rhymes “watch Amélie” with “no stopping me philosophy.” I swear to fucking god: At one point, he really says, “My artery is martyry.”

But lines like those are almost reassuring at this point. Common has always been like this. Even Common’s one honest-to-god inarguable classic, 1994’s Resurrection, had plenty of forehead-slap lines. (Now that I think about it, that might be the single thing that Kanye West picked up the most from Common: The ability to drop dumb, clumsy lines without ever losing the listener. The eye-roll/chuckle combination is just part of the experience with both guys.) And anyway, August Greene finds Common in a mellow and reflective place, thinking about his own shortcomings as a man and about the limitations that the world places in blackness. The mood suits him. Common’s soft-spoken excitability fits perfectly with Glasper and Riggins’ warm, sweaty, organic sound. And some of Common’s imagery is honestly beautiful: “Locked in, tryna get out of a sunken place / A blackness that isn’t defined by time and space.” And as with Common’s last album, 2016’s No I.D. reunion Black America Again, the political talk hits home: “They body snatching black girls in DC / Politics and propaganda on the TV / Distractions, distracting us from action.”

Common doesn’t need to rap anymore. He’s been acting steadily for more than 15 years, landing roles in movies both good (Selma) and bad (Suicide Squad). He spent five seasons on AMC’s Hell On Wheels, a show I never watched. He’s played icy-cold professional killers in three different movies — Wanted, Run All Night, and John Wick: Chapter 2 — and he’s fucking great at it. (Honestly: Common might be better at playing elite hitmen than he ever was at rapping. The fight scenes in John Wick: Chapter 2 are spectacular.) Common had a great run within rap, and he knows he’s not a part of the genre’s mainstream anymore, even if he fought to remain commercially relevant for a long time. These days, he’s free to pursue passion projects. And as passion projects go, August Greene is lovely.


1. Montana Of 300, No Fatigue, $avage, & Talley Of 300 – “FGE Cypher Pt.6″
Chicago’s FGE crew understand something crucial: If you want to prove that you know how to rap, an unforgiving ’80s-style blat-thunk-blat 808 beat is the way to go.

2. $tupid Young – “Murder Scene” (Feat. Lil Durk)
$tupid Young, a Cambodian-American rapper from Long Beach, has a street-rap perspective that I’ve never heard anyone else bring. But that’s not why I think “Murder Scene” is exciting. It’s that muttering-demon bassline that comes in after the hook. I love that thing.

3. $kippa Da Flippa – “D.A.M.N.” (Feat. Sauce Walka)
Shouting over woodblocks is not a lost art.

4. Buddy – “Black” (Feat. A$AP Ferg)
The best moment in Buddy’s rap career thus far has been a warm, sunny Kaytranada-produced EP, so it’s cool to hear him flexing hard over a merciless, dark churn of a beat.

5. PRhyme – “Flirt” (Feat. 2 Chainz)
A thing I didn’t realize I needed to hear: 2 Chainz rapping over a DJ Premier beat. A think I definitely didn’t realize I needed to hear: DJ Premier kinda-sorta rapping over a DJ Premier beat.