With its new-age flourishes, retro-rock style and an eclectic lineup of guests including everyone from Prince to Stereolab, Chi-town rapper Common's 2002 album, Electric Circus, was anything but a conventional hip-hop joint. And his next album will be as down-to-earth as that effort was a space trip.
"This one feels grounded, like hanging out on someone's Chicago sidewalk," Common said recently. "After going way out, it's a natural progression for me to come home again. It's more about people and things relative to life."
Common, halfway through recording his sixth album, already has a title. He'll call it, simply, Be.
"It could stand for 'basement elevation' or 'b-boy evolution.' But really it's just about being," he explained, "the simplicity of life and music. This album is rooted in not trying too hard to do anything specific, just letting the music come the way it comes."
Common has already recorded with a handful of beatmakers for this effort. These include Jay Dee, with whom he worked on his previous two albums, who pitches in on "It's Your World"; Kareem Riggins (Slum Village); and fellow Chicagoan Kanye West, who will helm several Be songs, including Common's current favorite, "Fooled."
Kanye's profile has increased immeasurably since Common met him years ago. As aspiring b-boy stars, they engaged in rap ciphers in Common's basement. "Put it this way: I didn't underestimate him. But I didn't know it'd get like this," Common said of Kanye's sudden popularity. "There's no limitations to him. I love his vision. He brings something fun, innocent and creative to hip-hop. I forgot hip-hop could be like that."
Common is also scheduled to record with the Neptunes and ?uestlove (a.k.a. Ahmir Thompson), the Roots mastermind who Common credits with turning around his career when the drummer executive produced Common's 1999 album, Like Water for Chocolate. "He enhanced my music and my thirst for music," Common said. "Ahmir is a genius, man. He took my music to a higher level."
Common wouldn't discuss his recent breakup with singer Erykah Badu. He did say her music, combined with that of artists like Talib Kweli, the Roots and Kanye West, contributes to the sense of community he felt as a young artist looking up to the Native Tongues (A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul and the Jungle Brothers). "Their best music makes me want to work that much harder. It's good to have that kind of creative inspiration around you. They remind you we do this for the love of it."
He said he hopes fans will feel that love in his music, regardless of whether he releases an eclectic album like Electric Circus or the more down-home long player Be's shaping up to be. "It's more of what people expect hip-hop to be," Common explained. "I gave them a space movie with Electric Circus. Now the movie is more about something blue-collar you can relate to. I hope they do."