Common arrived on the hip-hop scene of the early-Nineties as Common Sense, a post-Native Tongues rapper who offered an alternative to the prevailing gangsta fare of contemporaries like Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre. With space-age effects, old-school beats, jazz- and funk-influenced musical bedding and lyrics that often come off like spoken-word poetry, he helped kick off an underground hip-hop movement that would gain steam â and new rappers â by the latter part of the decade.
He was born Lonnie Rashid Lynn, Jr., in Chicago on March 13, 1972, the son of a teacher and former basketball pro. During high school, Lynn formed the rap trio C.D.R., which opened for national acts including Big Daddy Kane and N.W.A. He left the group to study business but continued rapping and eventually dropped out of school to begin work on his 1992 debut album, Can I Borrow a Dollar? Released under the name Common Sense on the indie label Combat Records, the disc, with its single “Take It EZ,” became a hit among fans of the so-called intelligent rap of likeminded acts such as A Tribe Called Quest and Gang Starr. Common Sense followed two years later with Resurrection, on Ruthless Records, which featured the anti-gangsta track “I Used to Love H.E.R.,” an allegory in which he used the tale of a wayward woman to symbolize what he saw as hip-hop’s moral decline. The song ignited a feud between Common Sense and rapper Ice Cube, but the album reached Number 27 on Billboard’s Hip-Hop Chart. All the attention brought a lawsuit by a ska band called Common Sense and the rapper was forced to shorten his name to Common.
It took three years for Common to deliver his third album, 1997’s One Day It’ll All Make Sense, on Relativity Records, featuring an all-star cast of collaborators including Lauryn Hill, Q-Tip, the Roots’ ?uestlove and Black Thought and alt-rappers Canibus. Critically lauded, the album included “Reminding Me (of Sef)” (Number Nine, Hot Rap Singles) and “Retrospect for Life,” his duet with Hill that rode on the refrain of Stevie Wonder’s “I Never Dreamed You’d Leave in Summer.” The album reached Number 12 on the rap charts and led to the rapper’s signing with major label MCA Records and relocation from Chicago to New York City.
Common’s two albums for MCA â Like Water for Chocolate (Number Five Hip-Hop, Number 16 Pop, 2000) and Electric Circus (Number Nine, Hip-Hop, Number 47 Pop, 2002) â brought the rapper a new level of critical and commercial success. With so-called positive hip-hop having gained a much stronger footing by the early 2000s, Common’s work had become hugely influential. On Like Water, producer ?uestlove brought a velvety soul sound to the music that was underscored by the background vocals of contemporary soul singer Macy Gray, the keyboard work of neo-soul pioneer D’Angelo and the trumpet playing of jazzman Roy Hargrove. The album produced Top 20 rap singles “The Light” and “The 6th Sense.” Electric Circus, with its Sgt. Pepper’s-like cover art, had a more experimental rock and electronics feel, with appearances from Prince and Stereolab’s Laetitia Sadier. Common won his first Grammy in 2003, for his appearance on Erykah Badu’s song “Love of My life (An Ode to Hip-Hop).”
In 2003, his label MCA was absorbed by Geffen Records, which released Common’s 2005 album Be, another commercial leap forward for the rapper that was produced almost entirely by rapper Kanye West. The album topped Billboard’s Hip-Hop Chart and reached Number Two on the Pop Chart, partly on the strength of its association with West, whose multi-platinum debut, The College Dropout, had come up the previous year. Be sold 800,000 copies and was nominated for four 2006 Grammys. The West-produced Finding Forever, Common’s 2007 album, debuted at Number One on the Billboard pop chart. Later that year, A Tribe Called Quest rapper Q-Tip announced that he and Common were forming a group called The Standard.