LOS ANGELES — Seeing Common rap today, it's easy to imagine how he did it way back in the day, when he was just a local kid on the Chicago music scene who called himself Common Sense.
He's in a bathroom, looking directly into a mirror, reciting his rhymes.
"Raised by gangs where brothers ain't fazed by fame," he rhymes. "Come to the crib, get banged, take your chain/ Stay in your lane/ My brainstorms like a stain in the ring/ My favorite was Kane ... Kick-back rappers get kicked to the back."
One of the many differences between now and back in the day, of course, is that a director is telling Common when to rap. We're on the set for Com's new video, "The Game," the first single from his upcoming LP, Finding Forever (see "Kanye West, Lily Allen Finding Something In Common" and "Common, Kanye Going For 'Glory' On Raw, Soulful New Songs").
Common's going to be spending a lot of time in front of cameras this year: he recently told MTV News about two major films he's appearing in (see "Common Exclusive: MC To Act Alongside Angelina Jolie In Ultra-Violent 'Wanted' "). But on this day, it was all about "The Game."
"I think it'll give people a nostalgic feeling but it's new at the same time," said Kanye West, who produced the song and makes a small cameo in the video. "It's a good, hard hip-hop track. A lot of melodies, different subject matter. The drums are super hard. People are gonna love it."
" 'The Game' for me, is [about] just feeling hip-hop," Com explained later in the day. "I felt hip-hop was such a pure expression, I was like, 'Man, I'm just gonna MC.' Kanye did the beat. I originally wrote it to this other beat, but eventually I put [the words] to this one beat he made when we was in Hawaii. It felt good. It felt real natural. It was something about the song that made me feel like ... As an MC, you not only talk about how fresh you are, you talk about specific things that happen in the world, what goes down in your neighborhood. I felt like that's what I was doing in that song."
For once, the combination of Common and Kanye on one song wasn't enough. They both felt the record needed something extra, so they enlisted Gang Starr's DJ Premier to bring his legendary flavor and turntable skills to the record.
"Once we got the beat with the rap, we was like, 'We have to throw some scratches on it,' " Com recalled. "It's dirty. I feel so enthused to be putting out a song like this. When I first heard it, I felt it was a Gang Starr type of feel — honestly, that why we got DJ Premier to do the cuts. I love the sprit the music has. When Primo bought the cuts to the studio, I felt like a kid. I felt so good about hip-hop."
Besides rapping in the mirror in the video, Common also had a chance to take his words to the stage with a club scene. And unlike many of his peers, in a Common video that does not mean popping bottles with models and trying to do some weird new dance. Here, the Chicago legend is on the mic amping up the crowd.
"I definitely wanted to go for something that was raw, felt like b-boy," he said of the scene, which finds him jumping up and down onstage, dressed in a hoodie, making the spectators mimic his movements and repeat his words. "The spot we had today was like many spots I've performed [at before]. It felt natural. We wanted it to feel basement — hip-hop has always felt basement. The crowd was live, they was feeling the song — I love that that feeling at a show. They had my back."
Kanyeezee had Common's back for about eight songs on the new LP (as well as his last, 2005's Be), including a record that just hit the 'net called "The People" and a duet with British singer Lily Allen, "Drivin' Me Wild."
"Lily's got style, she's got a certain flavor to her," Com said. "Kanye was like, 'You should get Lily Allen for this.' I was like 'OK, let me check.' I dug into her music for a while and was like, 'Man, she's perfect for this song.' It's something about her spunk that I dug. I like artists who don't care and can be themselves. It was a real good combination, it fit right."
"He's being true to himself," West said of Common on Finding Forever. "I think people will be pleased that it's raw, straightforward, quality sh--."
Finding Forever is slated for release on July 10.