We’ve Got A File On You: Common
The multi-hyphenate on 'John Wick,' winning an Oscar, Kanye, 'Let Love,' and more
We’ve Got A File On You features interviews in which artists share the stories behind the extracurricular activities that dot their careers: acting gigs, guest appearances, random internet ephemera, etc.
It’s been a long time since Common was just a rapper. Starting last decade, the one-time underground artist began to inch his way towards becoming a household name of sorts. Greater acclaim and attention had gathered around him through the years, but in the mid-’00s, during one of his commercial and critical peaks, Common started to cultivate a whole other career with acting.
Plenty of artists try their hand at other creative fields. But Common really dove in. Tomorrow, he’ll release his 12th album, Let Love, a sister project to his new book Let Love Have The Last Word. (It’s number 13 if you count last year’s collab August Greene.) Take a look at his film and TV credits — they dwarf that number. It’s not a one-to-one comparison; making an album is different than joining the cast of a movie. But the point is that many know Common as an actor just as much as a musician, perhaps even more. There are those that likely know him only as an actor.
If people only paid attention to that side of Common, they would’ve missed a rich, prolific streak through much of this decade. With Nobody’s Smiling and Black America Again, Common offered two of his more vital and engaged 21st century albums — and two of his angriest, grappling with the ongoing violence towards black Americans in his hometown of Chicago and in the country at large. August Greene — a team-up with keyboardist Robert Glasper and drummer Karriem Riggins — was both an extension of Common’s jazz-rap proclivities and a minor experiment that organically grew out of his past.
And now he’s back with Let Love, a fitting conclusion to the arc he sketched out over the past five years. Partnering with Riggins once more, Common’s located a sound that’s more of a salve than his last two solo albums. At the same time, he notes it’s one of his most personal, raw collections. He spent a good part of the ’10s looking outward and trying to communicate bigger themes and ideas. Now, he’s turned inside, looking for a clarity that could be applied back to those albums, too. And in doing so, he’s settled into an aesthetic that feels comfortingly, familiarly like Common — there’s a way in which Let Love sounds like an older, wiser continuation of some aspects of Be.
Upon the occasion of its release, Common and I met up to talk about his new album, other highlights of his musical career, that second life as an actor, as well as less expected odds and ends from across the years. Seated in the corner of a downtown Manhattan restaurant, Common’s disposition is as warm and generous as his reputation would suggest. Perhaps his recent self-examination was a factor, or maybe he’s just always this way — but Common offered up a thoughtful conversation throughout.
“Hercules” And Let Love (2019), August Greene (2018), Black America Again (2017), Nobody’s Smiling (2014)
STEREOGUM: Over the course of this decade, you had two heavier albums that dealt with violence, Nobody’s Smiling and Black America Again, both of which came out during the Obama years. Then, August Greene comes out, your first of the Trump years. I remember seeing a quote from that era where you you said you didn’t want to rap about Trump, that it’d be redundant. You wanted to lift people up, try and look for an answer. I was curious where your thought process was going into this new album. I feel like I hear throughlines from both of those trajectories this decade.
COMMON: I think my thought process was: What’s the best way to combat ignorance, divisiveness, and anxiety? The practice of love, as an action item, as something that you take inventory of and are actually conscious about, how you are living it, how you work in it, how you create in love. How you deal in everyday life with that. How you deal with issues and problems with the acts of love. I was writing this book Let Love Have The Last Word, and I’m feeling as open as I can be. I was creating the book, and I started working on the album. I was feeling like, man, I’m open and raw. I’ve been talking to my therapist about life, having to deal with a lot of things that I’ve experienced, or things I hadn’t dealt with, that are surfacing, coming to the forefront.
So in the process of dealing with that, I wanted to go into that place of raw emotion that Marvin Gaye would express. I wanted to be that vulnerable and that open and that raw. That was the thought process. With the vision of creating something that had enough humanity that could connect with people to inspire them to open up and be themselves more and essentially become better children of God and people on this planet. To me, that’s my way of combating the divisiveness and dissension that’s been created in this country and some places in the world.
STEREOGUM: I had a little hypothesis, correct me if you don’t feel this way. I was looking at the last 15 years or so. To me, there’s a bit of a trilogy with Be, Finding Forever, and The Dreamer/The Believer, Universal Mind Control being the tangent in the middle…
STEREOGUM: This decade, you’ve got Nobody’s Smiling, Black America Again, and August Greene — kind of a tangent, maybe more related to those projects than UMC would’ve been to Finding Forever or Be — and then Let Love. I was wondering if you saw some kind of arc to this body of work, or if this one’s a different chapter than those predecessors.
COMMON: I never thought about it that way but I think your hypothesis has some validity to it.
STEREOGUM: That’s a relief.
COMMON: Obviously, Be and Finding Forever had a connection just because of Kanye and the time we made it and where I was in life. You know, you’ll see, with certain albums — you can tell I’m veering off and going somewhere else, and that’s an example of where my life is to a certain degree. As you were saying, August Greene wasn’t that far off. To me, Nobody’s Smiling was me talking about how can I help my community, this is home. Then Black America Again is a bigger picture. It actually was a result of all the things I experienced on Selma, and everything I experienced with “Glory.” Black America Again was like, “Hey, I have this platform, I have to speak for the multitudes of people.”
STEREOGUM: It’s interesting you’re saying how raw you were feeling on Let Love. With those two albums, you were playing this elder statesman type role, trying to talk about these communities and tell these stories, and then in a way there’s a healing or redemptive thing to the idea that you follow those with a much more personal document, attempting to be hopeful almost.
COMMON: I went to this mindfulness retreat with my team. We were doing these different exercises. One of them, you had to put your hand on you heart and your other hand on your stomach and breathe, just breathe. I think the basis of it was an act of self-love, right? In the moment, I started getting a little teary-eyed when we were doing it. What I discovered in that moment was that, to be an activist, you gotta be a self activist, too. I’m always going to be for the people. That’s what my purpose is. But in being for the people, I gotta take care of myself too. Ultimately, you can never give all that you desire to give if you are not whole.
I think, after Black America Again and the work we were doing and going to visit prisons — and that work continues, it gets more vast, we created Imagine Justice, that’s a life mission — but I also understood, “Oh, I gotta be working on myself too.” I’ve surrendered to life in a way. Allowing life to happen. That doesn’t mean I don’t go after the things I want. But what I’m experiencing in life, I try to take that in, so that wherever I am artistically, that will be expressed. It wasn’t planned. Honestly, I didn’t even think about working on an album until December.
STEREOGUM: Yeah, you’ve been churning them out considering you’ve been acting in between.
COMMON: This was the first one I worked on where I didn’t act, where I wasn’t going to do a film, in a long time. Probably by the time of Finding Forever, I was always looking for the next film. Music, mentally, was the secondary priority. For several reasons. It was like, “OK, I don’t have to make music just to make a living. Man, I love acting so much and I’m growing as an actor and I want to get great at it so let me focus on it.” And I had to find where the inspiration was for me.
STEREOGUM: A reevaluation kind of?
COMMON: Yeah, yeah, reevaluation. I always felt I’ve been able to make music because I love music. From my first album to Like Water For Chocolate to — even though I knew it was a way for me to make a living, I still knew, it’s in my spirit and heart. Nobody’s Smiling was out of the urgency of what I saw going on in my city, and I thought if I don’t use music as one of my tools I’m not doing right by my city or my gift. So I wanted to keep on it from that perspective and also be active in it.
Then Black America Again spoke to that same thing but on a broader level. I know how much music has played a part in me, motivating me as a person, to go out and do work in the world, just inspired me to be a better person. So I wanted to give that music to people. This album just ended up being, me having the book and me really confronting — there’s certain things that happened in my life that I never talked about. I talked about molestation [in the book]. I talked about therapy in a way that made me understand my relationship with my mother and my father more. These are things that I never really examined [before now]. You start learning more things about yourself, I wouldn’t go run from it. I gotta work on it.
STEREOGUM: Like it’s all knotted up inside.
COMMON: Yeah, it’s all knotted up. I’m the type, if there’s an issue going on, I’m going to work on it right then and there. Ultimately, I’m a happy person overall. I’m a positive thinker. Optimistic. I love other people to be happy. I recognize that some keys to my happiness were getting rid of the baggage, learning how to deal with difficult emotions. I felt like, if I can do that by example with other people, that’ll be helping others.
STEREOGUM: Obviously you do have a reputation as a positive guy. When I was listening to the new album I felt you coming back to that a bit — [Solange’s “Cranes In The Sky” comes on in the background] This is funny this is playing, because one of the things I found was your unofficial remix —
An Unofficial Remix Of Solange’s “Cranes In The Sky” (2016)
COMMON: Man, I love this song so much. I just thought, I gotta rap on it. She was probably like, “Yeah, OK, cool.”
STEREOGUM: Did she ever text you about it or anything?
COMMON: No! She never said anything about it. So I hope she wasn’t upset about it or anything. But, you know, I love this song. I feel like she made a really great project.
STEREOGUM: That was one of the masterpieces of this decade, that album. Do you like the new one?
COMMON: I do like some of it. What I liked about her new project is, I love when artists make an album and then go somewhere completely different.
Smokin’ Aces (2006)
STEREOGUM: You had some cameos and such in the early part of the ’00s, but the first film role you had was Smokin’ Aces. Leading up to that, were you thinking this was a thing you wanted to pursue to this extent, or was it like, “I’ll take a shot and see what happens”?
COMMON: I loved movies, I loved theater. I never pursued it. I still grew up in a culture — it wasn’t like the arts were really prevalent everywhere. Even in my home. My mother didn’t listen to a lot of music. We didn’t go to the theater. But I loved the theater, I loved movies. During the time after Like Water For Chocolate, as I was working on Electric Circus … one of the reasons that album is out there is because I was like, “Man, I need something else to do, I need to express myself in another way.” My A&R introduced me to an acting coach right near the end of the Electric Circus promotional cycle, touring and stuff. At the top of that year, around 2001, I went to my first acting class. I was like, “Man, I love this. This is something I never felt before. What is this, this is incredible.”
I had such a good time. It was something where I not just had a good time, I felt like, “Oh, I could actually be good at this.” I just liked what acting was bringing to me, to my soul, to my heart. It was really a creative process that had a lot of self-examination and understanding of other human beings. And just learning. I love to learn. So I just kept going to classes. Even when I was on tour or making an album, I would be going to classes and I would look forward to going to classes. So I started auditioning more around 2004. I got my first movie in 2005, which was Smokin’ Aces. Now I was on tour for Be, about to go on tour with Kanye. I got the call, I was in the hotel room next to Kanye. We were at a DJ convention. I got that call and I had to go to the next room and tell Kanye I couldn’t do this tour. It was joy and disappointment in one. But he understood.
STEREOGUM: Was he psyched for you?
COMMON: He was, that’s when I was like, “Man, this dude’s a good friend.” Of course he was disappointed but he was like, “You know, you’re going for your dream.” It became something that was for real for me maybe at that moment. But as far as it being real as something I wanted to pursue? I think that happened in that first acting class. I wasn’t like, “Oh, I’m going to be in a movie.” I knew I had to work at the craft.
Hell On Wheels (2011-2014)
STEREOGUM: So, things obviously did progress and you wound up being a cast member on Hell On Wheels. It’s one thing for a musician — or even at this point, you’re a multi-hyphenate, as they say, right? — it’s one thing for people to do a cameo here or there, or a bit role for two episodes, or a movie every couple of years. But to be in the cast, of a TV show, for four years. That’s a whole other thing. I mean, just watching how vast and complicated the ecosystem of a show, all the different mechanisms that are going into that. You went all-in on this. You just didn’t dip your toe in. You felt this thing in the acting classes, so by the time you end up on the show, you were ready to embrace that world entirely?
COMMON: I truly embraced it. I was so enthused and grateful to be a part of Hell On Wheels. First of all, I loved the script, I loved the team I was working with, I loved the character. I felt it had so much depth to it. No stereotypical things for characters you see for that day and time. I knew it was an opportunity for me to work at the craft. Every day. That’s the dream for the artist. To work and be paid, too, but to work at it is the dream. I was getting a chance to really get a part of that world.
We were up in Calgary. Hanging out with my castmates. I got a bike up there. I’m going to Native American sweats. Going white water rafting. Reading all about people who lived during that day and age. I really felt like I was representing the ancestors who had been through what that character was going through. I felt a lot of dimensions, and I was really dedicated to that world. I was not doing anything else when I was working on Hell On Wheels. I would be up there for four or five months. I mean, I would fly out to do shows, because I still loved to perform and it was still another source of income, but ultimately Hell On Wheels was it. We would start in late April and be up there until late August. I love getting to dive into characters fully like that. When you got a character you lived with for that long, you know that character better than anybody.
STEREOGUM: Not to downplay what it takes to be in a comedy or an action movie, these are different skill sets. But that character meets a pretty brutal end to his story. You really had to go there, in terms of being somebody who was still sorta learning, still working a new creative muscle. It doesn’t seem like it would be an easy role.
COMMON: It wasn’t, but I was waiting for a character I could just commit to and not just be on the set for two days or be on a film for two weeks and then on to the next. I wanted to just live in a character and just work on my craft. It was so fulfilling to give myself to that character, to that television show. It was one of the greatest experiences I’ve had. The results, you never know what it’s going to be. But it actually introduced me to another crowd of people who don’t know my music. I get stopped in the airport at times, and it’s Hell On Wheels. It’s a demographic that … has no idea I rap. [Laughs]
“HER Love” (2019) And “I Used To Love H.E.R.” (1994)
STEREOGUM: On this new song, you’ve got a line where you say, “You gave me a voice in the world/ It’s been hard to choose another girl.” My coworker interpreted this as there being some anxiety about splitting your life between music and acting, going back to the original “I Used to Love H.E.R.” and that initial love of hip-hop. Has that been something you had to work through in your head over the years, as the acting really blossomed?
COMMON: My life has been dedicated to hip-hop. With a lot of other things going on, hip-hop will still always be the love of my life. I always will value what hip-hop has brought to my life, that it will — I believe and I pray that it will do that for the rest of my life. The joy. So, choosing other girls — I’m even talking about how it’s hard to be in a relationship sometimes, I give so much to my art.
Filmmaking is like a new relationship to art. It has some of the things that I felt in hip-hop, I feel I’m expressing myself. But it’s also got unique things. I gotta research and learn. If I’m playing a mechanic, I gotta learn what a mechanic does. In the process of it, I’m talking to this person who’s a mechanic, but they’re also a person. So I’m talking to someone and getting to learn about life from their perspective. Do my best to channel that. Acting has some things I don’t find in music, and music has some things I don’t find in acting. And then they have similarities. They both mean just as much to me. When you think about your first love, it has a certain resonance, but then you might also have somebody else that brought you something else in your life.
STEREOGUM: Beyond it being 25 years since “I Used To Love H.E.R.” came out, was there a reason you wanted to revisit the idea of that song on the new album?
COMMON: Some of my friends were actually like, “‘I Used To Love H.E.R.’ is going to be 25 years old, you should do something.” And I’m like, “I don’t want to remind myself it’s been 25 years, oh my God.” [Laughs] To be honest, how this came about was, I had another beat that Karriem [Riggins, drummer/producer for Let Love and August Greene] and [bassist] Burniss [Travis] had created. I started rhyming to it like, “Two DJs, one microphone, we freestyle, we write at home.” It was fast. I wrote a whole other song, and it was about hip-hop. I was like, you know what, this might feel good. As I was going on, I started writing about the new artists and writing their names.
I think the reason I wanted to talk about hip-hop was, I hear a lot of people from the golden era of hip-hop — even the late ’90s or early ’00s, back to the ’80s — complaining about where hip-hop is. I’m like, I don’t feel that way. So I wanted to express, man, the culture is still evolving. There are artists out there that are creating paths where they will be timeless artists. Like Chance, like Kendrick, like J. Cole. There’s artists we’ll remember forever like we remember legendary artists and writers. I wanted to acknowledge that and not be that dude from a different era complaining about the culture.
“I Used To Love H.E.R.” was actually complaining about [the culture then]. This one was saying, “Man, I love what you guys are doing, I love that you are expressing yourselves and showing what the culture’s supposed to be about. The way you see hip-hop.” [The new song is] a celebration. It’s an understanding that love is one of those things where, it’s not something where you try to control what a person is doing or what the culture is doing. You love the culture for what it is. I can’t say every hip-hop artist hits me the way A Tribe Called Quest did, but it was a different time in my life.
STEREOGUM: It was like you were saying, those first loves leave a long shadow.
COMMON: Right. I appreciate, and I really think, that people are doing fresh things. I enjoy that.
John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017)
STEREOGUM: So, it’s one thing for somebody who wasn’t a trained actor to take some classes, start to get better, try some genres. But you’ve done some action movies, and John Wick is really an action movie. I assumed so much of that had to be stunt coordinating, but you really had to learn this stuff, right?
COMMON: We had to do a lot of that. You can see it on the screen. We’re in there. I so enjoyed John Wick. I love the world of it. I love the training. We trained for like four months and worked on certain scenes and the director would change it day of. But once you’re in the world, and you give yourself to it, you’re open to everything that comes with it. You work with Keanu Reeves in his best form. Just to learn those things, and to be learning Italian … I’m super happy I was a part of the John Wick universe, that I am a part of it. I didn’t know it had that type of following. Out of anything people talk to me about film-wise, most people talk to me about John Wick.
STEREOGUM: So did you hit up Keanu about getting into the new Matrix movie?
COMMON: I need to, I’m about to, I need to be in it. [Laughs] But also, the first step is to be in John Wick 4.
Selma And Winning An Oscar For “Glory” (2014/2015)
STEREOGUM: Your music and film worlds collided here. You and John Legend wrote “Glory” for Selma, which you also acted in, and then you two wound up winning the Oscar for Best Original Song. Winning a Grammy is one thing. But how surreal was the Oscar?
COMMON: The Oscar was like, “Maaaan, how did I get here.”
STEREOGUM: You’ve been on a lot of stages. But what was going through your head when you were on that one?
COMMON: I’ve been on a lot of stages. But I’ve gotta say, that was probably one of the most present times in my life. I worked on it prior. I didn’t want to be just nervous. I wanted to say something. I wanted to make the best of this moment, for something greater than me. I mean, the truth is, I was overwhelmed and excited, but I also thought I had to make the best of this platform and make something meaningful, because it’s the world listening. At the time, John and I — every moment we had, we were doing something towards the mission, the vision, really striving to do something that meant something to people’s lives. Michael Brown was killed that year. There was a lot going on in our country. I was like, “God, you give me this platform, I’m going to do what I’m supposed to do, I’m going to do my duty.”
When they called our names, some people didn’t know it was me because they said Lonnie Lynn. When we got up there I was just like … I was present, I felt my heart was resonating on what I wanted to say. I wanted to give something beautiful to the world. But I was also paying attention to the clock, because it’s like 45 seconds, and John tapped me like, “All right, come on.” It was funny, I had to step off and make sure he had time. I don’t think they would’ve turned the music on us, but they might’ve.
STEREOGUM: It doesn’t take much for them to do that.
COMMON: Right. I was really present for it. I didn’t drink until after, I was eating clean, I did my prayers. Everything that I used to center myself, I did that before the performance. Then we had just done that and gotten a standing o, and that was amazing. Then when we got the award, the energy was still there.
STEREOGUM: So the obvious next thing here is, are you gonna work on the EGOT? You’re only missing one now.
COMMON: [Laughs] As I told you, I really love theater. There’s some really great playwrights out there right now, and really talented people in the theater world. So my goal is to go out and do some excellent theater and be an incredible actor in theater. Not only producer — I want to produce and write. But as an actor, I really want to do theater. That’s the goal right there.
STEREOGUM: The EGOT club is a small club.
COMMON: Yes, in all existence.
Be (2005), Finding Forever (2007), And Working With Kanye Through The Years
STEREOGUM: Be was my gateway Common album, generationally speaking, and Kanye was a gateway artist for me as well. You had this great moment, which at the time people portrayed as a comeback after Electric Circus — you know, a creative, commercial peak, as you were working really tightly with Kanye. You had tracks like “Southside,” where you two really dug into your shared history, Chicago, all that. You knew each other way back in the day, too. Then he was coming up as a producer some time later. How did it finally come to pass where you said, it’s time to work together, we’re going to do a lot of music together.
COMMON: Kanye, he always had some soul to him. The beats he had, had soul. At the time, No I.D. was right there, he had already developed his sound — his sound was a little bit more developed than Kanye’s. So I never worked with Kanye production-wise, but we would be around each other, he would come by rhyming, he’d come by my crib rapping and stuff. You know, we were cool. But in 2003, I started bumping into him in certain places in New York, in the airport. Like, man, we gotta work. I started hearing more of his beats and I was like, this dude’s leveling up. Snapping with the beats. There was one time he invited me to come to the studio session, he was in LA working on somebody else’s session. When I got there, he had this beat playing and I was like, “Man, what’s that.” He said, “You want it? Take the CD and go!” Because the person would’ve come in [and picked it].
STEREOGUM: Which song was that?
COMMON: “The Food.” That was the first song we recorded together. I remember me coming out of the booth and he was like, “Man, you got a dope voice, your voice could be pop actually. It could be for the masses.” He knew my work. I consider myself like … if there is a thing as a jazz hip-hop artist, meaning I go a little to the left in my music. Now, left, anyone can go all over. But my point is, I don’t approach things thinking, “How’s it going to be on the radio?” And one thing that Kanye has as a gift, he can do artsy stuff that’s still pop.
So when we started creating, after we made the first song, I was like, “Man, we’re working.” We went into the studio, I was bringing records, he’d go through the records and sample, we started cooking up. He was about to come out with this album, I said what if I am on your label. He said, “Aw, man, that’s beautiful.” He got excited. From that point, we worked together really tight, became really good friends. Just brothers. Beyond any music and stuff, I just have a true love for him as a friend.
STEREOGUM: I know you recently talked about this, with all the controversial things he’s said in recent years obviously running counter to your political beliefs, you saying “He’s still my brother.” After all of that, do you want to work with him again, or do you think you guys went in different directions?
COMMON: He’s definitely been pursuing so many different things. Anybody I work with musically, I want to catch them on a vibe where we’re just connecting. I think we would make some great music if we got together and just sat around and listened to samples, or if I let him go through his production process. If I’m writing, if we’re reworking the hooks together. I think it’d be beautiful. We’ve both just grown in our own directions pursuing careers beyond music, too. But we both have a love for creativity. All it would take is for us to get around each other and vibe. Most albums I do, I like being with one, maybe two producers.
STEREOGUM: A tighter collaboration than a TV set maybe.
COMMON: Right, collaboration. We’re talking about life, right? Me and Kanye, he’d send me a Christmas gift, we’d talk about relationships, we took our mothers to Mothers’ Day dinner. When you’re living life and creating with someone like that, the art becomes even better, because you intertwine. The spirits are working in connection. We knew how to communicate with each other. He’d be like “Nah, rewrite that,” I’d be like, “Nah, that beat is good but make another.” I would love to create something with him, a project. Man, I should’ve been there when he was doing the seven albums.
Hosting Spike TV’s Framework (2015)
STEREOGUM: I didn’t know about this before. There was a furniture-building competition show you hosted for a season. That’s pretty different from even the acting, movies. Like … how did this happen?
COMMON: [Laughs] Woo. Look, I’m the type of person — I’ll try different things and see if it works. I don’t know much about furniture. Really, I barely know anything. I know more about it now. But it was at a time, I had the space to do it, and financially it was a really great opportunity. And I was like, “OK, let me see if I’m good at this.” I want to know that I can do stuff. Even speaking engagements, I’m great with that, I speak at colleges. Anyway, the thing I’m grateful for is it gave me a space. That’s when I was writing “Glory.” It gave me a space to be in LA working. But it’s something that I definitely was like, “OK, I had that experience, I don’t need to do that, that’s enough.”
STEREOGUM: It was kinda funny to see like, “Common in host mode.”
COMMON: Oh my God. And be trying to tell people like, “This ain’t gonna work, your product ain’t good.” [Laughs]
“Holiday In Your Hood” Gap Commercial (2006)
STEREOGUM: Obviously people do commercials. But this felt like another somewhat random thing. I remember this when it came out, sonically it’s not that far off from the albums you were making with Kanye at the time. But did you get some pushback about being in a Gap commercial?
COMMON: Yeah, you know, obviously people were like, “This corporation is not doing right by people.” I honestly have to say, I didn’t do my diligence on knowing what the corporation did. At the time, I looked at it and thought, “Man, this is a great chance to reach an audience that don’t know me, but I’m not about to change my essence. I can be who I am.”
STEREOGUM: And I guess you kinda had to strike while it was there, with Be as successful as it was.
COMMON: I’m not afraid of being on big stages, but I want to be on big stages being true to myself. Of course, the moral thing of, does this company …
STEREOGUM: Any corporation anyone interacts with —
COMMON: Exactly, you know? No company out there is perfect.
“The 6th Sense” And Like Water For Chocolate (2000)
STEREOGUM: People lump you into some things in the ’90s, then you have this Soulquarian collective where everybody was feeding into each other’s works in the late ’90s and early ’00s, then this moment with Kanye, and then I think it’s just kinda like, Common, on your own wavelength from there. I feel like a certain version of Common crystallized during those Soulquarian days though, with Like Water For Chocolate. I wonder if you feel the same way when you look back on them.
COMMON: For sure, Like Water For Chocolate was one of those transitional, crystallizing [moments]. That was, I’m going to break free and be who I am. I’m listening to Fela Kuti and Slum Village. Now I’m coming from Chicago, a Southside dude, grew up eating everything, but I’m going to stop eating beef. Oh, I moved to New York, I’m in a world of art, I’m surrounded by art, I’m going to see Gordon Parks exhibits — which became my album cover. It was a crystallization of me knowing, man, if I can free my mind enough, I can be the best artist I can be. I deserve to be around these designers and Erykah Badu and Mos, that’s going to sharpen me, too. Not only is it my family, it’s going to sharpen me. We were going to jam sessions every weekend. That was a crystallization of me knowing I could be an artist.
STEREOGUM: And there’s something in the air in those moments.
COMMON: All the way. Especially at Electric Ladyland.
STEREOGUM: You were talking about Kendrick, Chance. These young artists you like. The thing you experienced with the Soulquarians back then, do you see young artists carrying that forward in some ways? I mean, I guess To Pimp A Butterfly goes back to that a little.
COMMON: Them dudes are pushing it forward. I think they are able to take inspiration and create their own, which is what the best artists do. I’ve been inspired by KRS-One, Stevie Wonder, Nas. But I gotta make it my own. That being said, I think Kendrick, Chance, I think Noname does it too. I’m not saying all their inspiration is the Soulquarians. But they’re able to take inspiration from different generations and channel it into their own. I think it’s incredible.
Another thing, as an answer to your question about crystallizing. Be was a crystallizing moment too for me. I felt like I had gone in a circle, with Can I Borrow A Dollar? as my first album, Resurrection, One Day It’ll All Make Sense, to Like Water For Chocolate and Electric Circus, and then Be was the beginning of a new cycle. Back home, in a way, but new. That crystallized me speaking things into existence. The power of my thought and words. Some of that was just being around that type of energy. Kanye is that type of energy. “I’m going to build this building.” Two days later it’s like, “How’d you build this building in two days bruh!?” Saying things like, how you gonna do it? And then it’d be done.
STEREOGUM: Where do you feel you are on the circle now with Let Love?
COMMON: This one’s the beginning of a new circle.
STEREOGUM: We’re back to Be but another level up again.
COMMON: Some people on my team … they didn’t try to say it was Be, but they were like, “This is one of your albums I like in the vein of, bringing that soulful sound,” I was happy about that. It’s new sounding because it’s new musicians. Like Samora [Pinderhughes], he went to Juilliard. He listens to a whole spectrum, he knows rock and he knows soul. His sound on the keys is different. Burniss Travis is a different bassist than we’ve used before, even though he’s played on August Greene. My point is as producers they created new sounds. And Karriem has grown, has learned to do new sonic things — some of the drums are programmed and sound live, some are live and sound programmed.
STEREOGUM: I like that comparison. It did give me some flashbacks to Be. But I like that idea that you’ve come back around to that point but moved somewhere else with it. It kinda feels like you’re in a sweet spot of yours but saying something new about where you are now.
COMMON: Yeah, yeah, I try not to get into, “This album sounds like this album.” When my team mentioned that, I couldn’t do anything but be happy, because I was like … I know Be is one of my greatest albums. If Be ain’t my greatest, it’s between that and Like Water For Chocolate.
STEREOGUM: At least you’re tapped into the right place then, huh.
COMMON: [Laughs] Yeah, yeah, I was like, cool! You saying that is one of the best compliments I can have.
STEREOGUM: It’s gonna be a good year then.
COMMON: Exactly. That energy, that you could even say, “It gave me a little bit of that.” It’s hard-fought, for music to touch you. Like, Low End Theory and Midnight Marauders, there are no albums that are going to hit me like those albums. But there’ll be things that are great and might even be better, but it won’t hit me the same way. But I do feel like this is one of those albums that’s an offering of a pure, soulful thing where I thrive the best.
Let Love is out 8/30 via Loma Vista.