Common Moves Toward A Progressive Hip-Hop

Rapper alternates jazz-influenced tracks with brash, straightforward ones.

Common goes to extremes on his fourth album, Like Water for Chocolate, in what he says was an effort to "expand hip-hop."

The album's first notes, from the saxophone of African bandleader Femi Kuti, launch a journey in which Common fits his voice contemplatively to jazz and R&B rhythms on some songs while rhyming brashly to straightforward beats on others.

"What I really wanted to do was something that felt good, make some good music, man — make something that was innovative and adding on to the culture," the 27-year-old rapper (born Lonnie Rashid Lynn) said of the album, due March 28. "Something that was funky and something that basically would expand hip-hop and not limit it."

Moments later, Common, talking from his New York apartment, seemed to revert to the precocious kid he used to be when he breakdanced like Crazy Legs and worked as a ball boy for the NBA's Chicago Bulls in the mid-'80s. "Hey Dad. It's on, yo!" he shouted, his mouth moving away from the phone.

With that, his parents rushed to his television to watch the video for "The 6th Sense," the album's fierce first single.

'Expanding My Mind'

The rapper's other collaborators on the ambitious album include soul singer D'Angelo, noted New York rapper Mos Def — of Black Star — rap veteran MC Lyte and drummer/arranger Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson of the Roots. Thompson served as the record's executive producer and co-produced several songs. The prolific DJ Premier produced "The 6th Sense," built on one of his own familiar, tenacious keyboard loops.

"I was expanding my mind to different styles of music, to different approaches," Common said. "So the artists that I used definitely fit in with that scheme."

With the music providing the juice, Common, who grew up in Chicago and said he was influenced by the radical late-'60s/early-'70s spoken-word funk duo the Last Poets, made an effort not be overshadowed.

The result ranges from the cocky "Heat" ("A wise man came in the thick of the night/ He said bring that shit, ooh, pick up the mic") to the playful teasing between Common and MC Lyte on "A Film Called (Pimp)" to his romantic longing on the R&B-flavored "The Light." On the latter, Common shows his respect for women, rhyming, "I never called you my bitch or even my boo/ There's so much in a name and so much more in you."

"There's a lot said in [the word 'bitch']," Common explained. "That's degrading someone even if they take it as like a positive word. It ain't. That's a derogatory word."

He is less serious elsewhere on the album. Common and Mos Def trade humorous barbs on "The Question," about relationships, life's oddities ("Why do I need ID to get ID?"), the music business and ex–professional basketball player Julius Erving's beard and mustache.

Jazz-Inspired Rap Meets The Mainstream

Common said he, the Roots and Mos Def are part of a progressive movement striving to commercially position their jazz-inspired songs alongside the more conventional, minimalist work of Jay-Z, DMX and others. The Roots won a Grammy Award for Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group this year for their song "You Got Me." Mos Def's lauded 1999 effort, Black on Both Sides, has gone gold, meaning 500,000 copies have been shipped.

By contrast, Jay-Z's 1998 album, Vol. 2 ... Hard Knock Life, went quadruple-platinum — 4 million shipped — and DMX's Flesh of My Flesh — Blood of My Blood (1998) and ... And There Was X (1999) each sold nearly 700,000 copies in their first week of release, according to SoundScan.

Rapper Afrika, of '80s veterans and fellow progressives the Jungle Brothers, said he was rooting for Common and company to catch up. He said he believes they're close.

Strength From Within

"They're not watering themselves down with the mainstream," said Afrika (born Nathaniel Hall), whose group's V.I.P. was released March 7. "They're strengthening their influence from within, and it's making people believe in what they're saying and what they're doing and look their way."

"The state of hip-hop reminds [me] of the state of rock 'n' roll 12, 14 years ago," Cypress Hill rapper Sen Dog said. "I feel hip-hop went from being a credible outlet as far as rhymes, appearance, image, beats, everything, to being flashy and 'Look at me.' ... So when you listen to the sh-- that's not really on the radio, you're like, 'Yeah, this is what hip-hop was.' "

"I'm just able to express myself with no fear of judgment," Common said. "I'm trying to be dope, but I don't care if I'm saying, 'Yo, I drink and I be messin' with these women.' If I want to be saying something enlightening, I say that, too."

Common began his career in Chicago using the name Common Sense. He released two albums, Can I Borrow a Dollar? (1992) and Resurrection (1994), before shortening his name and releasing One Day It'll All Make Sense in 1998. That album featured a duet with Lauryn Hill, "Retrospect for Life" (RealAudio excerpt).

His 1994 single "I Used to Love H.E.R.," was an underground hit. Last

year, he scored a rap hit with "One-Nine-Nine-Nine," from the

compilation Rawkus Presents Soundbombing II.