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Universal Man

Constant elevation: Common's latest album balances spiritual elements with a good-timey, spitkicking vibe.

The Chicago-bred, Brooklyn-based rapper Common (born Lonnie Rashid Lynn) has never been one to follow doctrines -- or to shy away from voicing his opinions, even when those opinions differ radically from the general American party line. Consider his thoughts on the case of Assata Shakur, an African-American woman who has lived in exile in Cuba since 1986. (Shakur fled the States after escaping a New Jersey prison, where she was serving a life sentence plus thirty years for her alleged involvement in the shooting of a New Jersey State trooper in 1973.) Because mainstream media and politicians typically portray America as the benevolent, freedom-loving father and Cuba as the unfit, evil patriarch (the battle of Elián Gonzales, anyone?), the notion of a 'political' prisoner fleeing America to live in exile in Cuba may seem inconceivable, if not absurd, to many Americans. Common, however, sees Shakur as a freedom fighter, a champion and a muse -- and he's extended this view to his music and his life.

Common first felt Shakur's influence after reading her autobiography, Assata, which outlines her struggles as an activist and her affiliation with the Black Panther Party. She also writes of the brutality and torture she experienced while in the custody of various correctional facilities. "What drew me to her was the strength that she showed throughout her life and the freedom of mind that she showed when she was able to achieve a knowledge of self," Common says. "She had that goal. That drew me to her right there."

As an ode to this inspiration, Common wrote "A Song for Assata," which appears on Like Water for Chocolate, his critically praised album released this past spring. The song emanates a gospel-hymn-like quality, with Cee-Lo from Goodie Mob providing a soul-stirring sung chorus. In the cut, Common re-creates the night when Shakur and two other Black Panthers, Sundiata Acoli and Zayd Malik Shakur, were stopped by state troopers on the New Jersey Turnpike. A shootout followed, leaving a trooper and Zayd dead and Assata and Sundiata wounded. "Shot twice with her hands up/Police questioned but shot before she answered," Common raps on the cut. "One Panther lost his life, the other ran for his/Scandalous the police were as they kicked her and beat her/Comprehension she was beyond, trying to hold on to life."

Rap fans might know Shakur by her American name, Joanne Chesimard, which Public Enemy referenced on "Rebel Without a Pause" from its incendiary It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. Her struggle for freedom has been championed by other rappers and various human-rights organizations. Yet despite substantial evidence that Shakur did not commit murder, New Jersey governor Christine Whitman heightened the effort to extradite her back to the States by upping the financial reward to the Cuban government.

Prior to completing his album, Common had a chance to meet Shakur during the fifth annual Cuban Rap Festival, where the rapper performed in August 1999. He played "Song for Assata" for her and was later able to get a few quotes. Those words were subsequently added to the recorded version of the song, giving it a poignant close. "Freedom! You asking me about freedom. I'll be honest with you. I know a lot more about what freedom isn't than about what it is, 'cause I've never been free," Shakur is heard saying. "I can only share with you my vision of the future, about what freedom is. The way I see it, freedom is the right to grow, is the right to blossom. Freedom is the right to be yourself, to be who you are, to be who you wanna be, to do what you wanna do."

"It was one of the best experiences in my life," Common says of the meeting. "It taught me a lot about balance, about how you could be a good person, but that don't mean you're perfect. You can still have fun and try to elevate yourself."

For Common, Cuba was a place where he could connect with others similarly affected by the African experience and view his struggle and that of black peoples from a global perspective. The visit, he says, "was a spiritual journey. I thought it was a beautiful place. It was rich in spirit. It was fun and very musical."

When Common recorded the rest of the material for Like Water for Chocolate, his fourth album, that journey inevitably helped shape his desire to create a record that would balance his spiritual, consciously elevating side with the desire to just kick it and have fun. "I wanted to make an album that was entertaining, educating and uplifting. My vision was positive. I wanted to make something that just felt good and that people could feel like, 'Yo, this is the way I used to feel when I heard hip-hop back in the days.' I just wanted to make something that was fresh to the people," he says.

In pursuit of these aims, Common enlisted a number of high-profile players and producers, including DJ Premier, Jay Dee from Slum Village, D'Angelo, James Poyser and ?uestlove from the Roots. ?uestlove served as executive producer and oversaw the project -- as he did on D'Angelo's excellent Voodoo, also released this year. On both recordings, ?uestlove draws a musical bridge between the spiritual and the carnal. "Jay Dee and ?uestlove helped that vision because they brought the music, and the music of it is like the foundation of it, to be honest," Common says of his Chocolate collaborators. "?uestlove dealt with not only the production end of it, but also the sequencing of the album and the skits."

Appropriately, the disc starts off with "Time Travelling (a Tribute to Fela)," dedicated to late Nigerian artist Fela Kuti, whose music made a point of balancing celebratory, intoxicating African dance beats with socially conscious lyrics. For Common, Fela "represents creativity, revolution, substance. He represents soul." The track features the sumptuous vocals of Vinia Mojica and Fela's son Femi, as well as tasteful playing by trumpeter Roy Hargrove and D'Angelo on the keyboards. "I felt like the song was a prayer; that song was like world music," Common says of the track. "I thought that song was a way to let the people know that this is about where you are to enter this world. I'm going to take you wherever I want to go with this music, and prepare yourself."

The world that Common presents this time around is decidedly more upbeat and funky than what he displayed on his last album, 1997's underrated One Day It'll All Make Sense (Relativity), which wasn't quite the breakthrough album many had expected. The disc's laid-back tone showed Common's introspective side and reflected some of the serious life changes that he experienced while recording the album -- most notably, the then-impending birth of his daughter, Omoye Assata Lynn, whom he named in part after Shakur. The disc helped solidify Common's reputation as one of rap's deeper thinkers and had its share of highlights: "Retrospect for Life," which saw some rotation on radio and video, thanks in part to a cameo by Lauryn Hill; "G.O.D. (Gaining One's Definition)" with Cee-Lo; and "Pop's Rap Part 2/Fatherhood," which featured Rashid's father, Denver resident Lonnie Rashid Lynn Sr. Still, the album didn't exactly catapult the rapper out of the underground.

When Common began to collect material for what would become Like Water for Chocolate, he knew he had to make some changes. He looked for a label that might be better suited to market and promote him as an artist. MCA came into the picture when ?uestlove and other fellow label notables informed Wendy Goldstein, senior vice president of A&R, that Common was looking for a new home. MCA eventually bought out Common's contract from Relativity in December 1998. The deal allowed him to put records under his own imprint, Madame Xenobia, which bears the MCA logo -- and enjoys its massive distribution. So far, the artist-label relationship seems to be progressing swimmingly. Common credits the label's ability "to promote me properly, get me out in the marketplace. To give me an opportunity to get on the radio, in video. To put me in the right places, market me good. Put more money behind me, allow me to be more creative, and to accept my creativity."

With his recent single "The Light," Common has finally attained a visibility that might have been impossible under Relativity's direction. The video for the track, which has received extensive airplay, features Erykah Badu as Common's paramour and transmits a sensual warmth, both visually and through the rapper's words: "It's important that we communicate and tune the fate of this union to the right pitch/I never call you my bitch or even my boo/There's so much in a name and so much more in you." The success of this single and the album has put Common in the enviable position of achieving respect both in the mainstream and in the underground.

It is this balance between commercial accessibility and underground credibility that typifies the dualities that exist within Common. Throughout Like Water for Chocolate, we hear the rapper wrestle with conflicting struggles. "The Sixth Sense," the joint's first banging single, produced by DJ Premier, finds Common "dealing with alcoholism and Afrocentricity/A complex man drawn off of simplicity" where "reality is frisking me." On "The Questions," he asks a young woman, "Yo, if I'm an intellectual, I can't be sexual?" to which she responds, "I don't know. You wanna be sexual?" In its depiction of Common as a pimp with a social conscience, "A Film Called (Pimp)" seems to almost poke fun at the image of Common as the righteous teacher who respects and speaks positively of women. "It's a satire about pimping, but at the same time it's showing the contradictions within myself," he says. "I do rap about awareness. I do rap about God. But at the same time, I fall victim to womanizing.

"I feel like, me as a person, that's a balance I'm dealing with. I do pray, and I do try to spread love, and at the same time, I do drink sometimes, and I do get jealous. Even though we're trying to do great, there is still a side that just wants to go and just kick it."

As he strives to seek a balance in his own life, Common has also come to accept the fact that hip-hop in general has become more balanced. He offers a different perspective on rap now than the one he set forth on his 1994 single "I Used to Love H.E.R," in which his indictment of what rap had become led to a war of words between himself, Ice Cube and Mac 10. The pair dissed him on the cut "Westside Slaughterhouse"; Common responded with the scathing "The Bitch in Yoo." Before things got too far out of hand, Cube and Common squashed their beef at a truce in 1997 brokered by the Minister Louis Farrakhan, who sought to unify the rap world following the deaths of Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls. At the time of its release, "I Used to Love H.E.R." drew a line between conscious rap and gangster rap; today, Common says, "I don't feel the same way about it. I'm just realizing that hip-hop is going through different changes, and I've got to allow it to grow and change. I still get disappointed. If I was to write a new chapter to the song, I'd just be like, 'Yo, I know, I understand you become unbalanced, sometimes you like flossing, and I know you righteous, I see the balance in you, but just keep living and growing.'"

Though Common still kicks tough, rap-conscious lines like "That jiggy shit is over/The war is on" (as he does on "Dooinit"), he characterizes them as warnings against the materialistic mentality that's afflicting black communities rather than disses against some other rapper. "It's the whole mentality that exists in the community, and it is influencing the community. That mentality is like, 'My car is more important than my mother,' 'My rocks are more important than my younger brother or this guy that's homeless on this street right now.'"

The war, then, is the struggle to get more positive voices, both musical and cultural, heard. "I think it is a war just for us, fighting for who we are as people, just fighting for our spirits. And it's a fight to get our opinions and beliefs out there. The war, musically, is the artists that do exist and try to bring a certain awareness and are conscious about what they're saying. We've got to combat the materialistic world, but it ain't just the artists. It's the whole world -- the radio stations, the publications, the TV stations -- that constantly want to pump music that don't possess that spirit of uplifting."

"Pops Raps III...All My Children," which features Common's dad, certainly does embody a message of spiritual elevation. At first Lynn was reluctant to participate in his son's music a third time. He recalls the phone conversation he had with his son, while Common was in a recording studio in Philadelphia, that initially led him to reconsider: "He was in the studio, him and Will Smith and them, and they were doing some work. I told Rashid, 'I'm not going back on the next album,' and he's kind of like, 'Will said you got to come back on the album. Will said your song was the best song on my last album,' and I'm like, 'Will Smith is listening to me?' I couldn't imagine this. So I made a proposition: I said, 'I'll come back on the album if I can write this time.' He was like, 'Yeah, you can write this time, Dad.'"

The song is a spoken-word tribute from a father "to all his children" who have the freedom of mind to blossom from a kind of musical family tree, where all the roots are intertwined: "True hip-hop is just like the underground railroad.../Everybody knows there's no fruits on the tree without the Roots and Black Star/Say we are who we are/The knowledge of self-determination." Lynn, who has counseled at-risk children at the Lookout Mountain School for Boys and has served as the Colorado Director of the Jim Brown founded Amer-I-Can Foundation, says he wanted "to put the world together, all the races together. I praise and compliment the young people that I think is doing and saying the right thing. I praise and compliment the people Rashid has chosen to work with. I was impressed with the wholesomeness of like De La and Lauryn. I could go on and on, but I wanted to praise them for the way they are raising their children. See, the thought that came to mind is that they got babies, too. I wanted these babies, which would be the age of my grandchildren, to be looking toward their own prophecy and not to buy someone else's negative prophecy, because you make your own prophecy."

This is one doctrine that Common is likely to accept.