Common Walks

by Pierre Hamilton


They say my life is comparable to Christ’s
The way I sacrificed, and resurrected, twice
They say “The crochet pants and the sweater was wack
Seen “The Corner”, now they say “That nigga’s back,” uh…
—Common, from “They Say” (Be)

Electric Circus nearly ruined Common. Its futuristic psycho-babble so jarred the hip-hop community, who three years earlier had embraced Like Water for Chocolate, that they abandoned the b-boy emcee in his most vulnerable state. It was the most audacious, ostensibly alienating, effort ever undertaken by a mainstream emcee and one that took years to overcome.

Electric Circus wasn’t just another rap album to me. It’s not his best album—I can concede that—but it aspired to be, and sometimes that’s enough. It strapped burden to its back and sought to expand rap’s consciousness, which hit listeners like the queasiness that precedes a psychedelic mushroom trip. From there it pried open the doors of perception, calling upon Prince, the beguiling bag lady of neo-soul Ms. Erykah Badu, the Neptunes, and those musicians tired of playing it safe.

It was hip-hop through the acid-tinted looking glass, a rock ‘n’ rolling vision of music past and future, delivered NOW. Common tore away layers of bullshit macho posturing and let the music howl. Somewhere in his mind, and probably his heart too, the brazen black pioneers of rock, the throbbing sexuality of the blues, and the muted stoicism of ragtime era jazz demanded a voice. Instead of ignoring them, he lent them his words and said, “Hip-hop is changing; y’all you want me to stay the same?”

Our wallets responded first and, according to sales, they said yes.

And that was it, wasn’t it? Electric Circus was about Common outgrowing hip-hop and hip-hop standing still, rejecting change. It’s about hip-hop being stuck in puberty, never allowing that last spurt of teenaged rebellion, those fleeting moments in which everything set in stone can still be broken, to send you spiralling into a future that’s yours to control.

He’ll say the album lacked focus, which is true, but it lacked the focus that made free jazz or disco or even the blues free to just be. Electric Circus cut ties with hip-hop tradition and brokered broad new vistas for black music to visit. That few wanted, or were ready, to travel along is indicative of a certain close-mindedness that thrives in the hip-hop community, a community unwilling to accept that their music is merely an evolutionary notch on the chain gang of black music. Electric Circus linked those chains, whether in Common’s homage to Hendrix, in whose studio the album was recorded, or in the ragtime melodies and sheer nakedness of what he gave to us.

Electric Circus’ “Between Me and You, Liberation” is one of Common’s most revelatory songs, private meditations to free us from our own mental slavery. In it, he sews together three harrowing tales: of a woman who chases redemption in sex after being raped by her father, of his cancer-stricken aunt—a woman so wracked with pain her only freedom is death—and his acceptance of a gay friend, who casts off the shackles of self-hate by coming to terms with his sexuality. This from the lips of an MC whose own homophobic musings were well-known. As honest and unsettling as it is, you can hear his personal growth manifested in his voice and the album itself. But it is a change we rejected.

Speculation suggests one thing led him to this evolution: his romance with Erykah Badu. Hadn’t she done the same thing to Outkast’s Andre 3000? Was Common her second pet project? Whatever was at work, Jay-Z was already etching Common’s epitaph on The Black Album when he said, “Truthfully I want to rhyme like Common Sense [the rapper’s old name], but I did five-mill, I ain’t been rhyming like Common since.”

As that statement rippled through the hip-hop community, Kanye West, himself a Jay-Z prodigy, was about to unearth The College Dropout. That album would propel consciousness hip-hop back to the mainstream. And since both MCs lived in Chicago at some point in their lives, it was only right that the man who resurrected Christ (“Jesus Walks”) should do the same for Common.

And then there was Be, Common’s most cautious album to date. It is less experimental, more commercial, and it conforms, most rigidly, to West’s aesthetic of hip-pop. And yet it meets, and in certain cases exceeds, expectations. Gone is the gut-wrenching anguish, the Hendrix riffs, the spacey, mind-altering vibe. In its place, the still-soulful offerings of a man who tried and failed to open our eyes, ears, and minds—a man who returned to the corner and will never again ask so much of us. A man content to Be in a genre where he was on his way to becoming.

PopMatters: What happened with Electric Circus? I mean, you did something experimental kinda like Andre [The Love Below] years before him and people didn’t get it, why?

Common: I don’t think Electric Circus was as focused. Though I’d done some progressive hip-hop, people know me as the b-boy. When I showed them something different, a different style of b-boy, there were like, “Hold up. You can be Afrocentric, but what’s this rock shit that you’re doing?” I think they was just shocked to see me doing that and Love Below in general is just a great album, don’t you agree?”

PM: I do. Do you think anything else might have contributed?

C: I think the hip-hop audience is definitely limited in the music that it’s exposed to and the music it opens itself up to. I’m just talking as a whole. Of course, you got an underground element and [some people] really listen to all types of other things, but the audience as a whole doesn’t open up to a lot of different styles of music. And being that what I did on Electric Circus was a collage of different music that impressed me and inspired me, it was a new taste to them. Brand new. They was used to soul food coming from me and I gave them some Indian food, you know.

PM: How important was Kanye to your comeback?

C: His success opened people up to new music and people in hip-hop that were doing something that was like humanity. Talking about spirituality, talking about they flaws, talking about they desires. Talking about having fun and being creative. It opened people up to that the music I’ve been doing—that brand, that style of music. Kanye had his own sound, but I’d been doing something in that vein for the longest time. Kanye was needed to open the doors, man, so the masses could enjoy it and then say, “Hey, this is a good sound,” and we do love other things besides just guns and bitches and whatever things hip-hop was only showing. He was the catalyst, the spark. He opened a whole new side of hip-hop back open. A lot of hip-hop artists that were doing the conscious music—it had never reached the plateau that Kanye had reached. He took it to another level.

PM: My friend Omar and I were at the Toronto show and he thought you said 50 Cent is a bitch during your freestyle?

C: I said: “I ain’t 50 Cent, but, bitch, it’s your birthday”. That’s just like if I said, “I ain’t Mos Def but ‘Umi Says’ [the name of a song from Black on Both Sides]’. I ain’t no person that says 50 Cent ain’t shit. He’s expressing what he feels. That’s hip-hop. I feel like that’s hip-hop. Jay-Z is hip-hop. Nas is hip-hop. How can I hate somebody that’s doing hip-hop? That’s their expression. They grew up on it just like I did. I’m a like what I like. I’m a listen to what I want to listen to.

PM: For the song “The Corner” you called in the Last Poets, a ‘70s poetry collective who were known for their vicious, at times controversial poems like “The White Man Has a God Complex”. Why bring them in?

C: They’re very cold-blooded. They gifted at writing. They voices is incredible. They took my song to a higher level. And that’s what hip-hop was about to me. It would have a message. It would take you to the next place. It was fresh as people say—something new. They brought newness to what “The Corner” was and they also brought some nostalgia, too. Just them being from the ‘70s and being used in hip-hop and their spirit brought something pure to it. They gave me a better understanding of the corner after that. I knew those who had been listening to hip-hop would know who the Last Poets were and if they didn’t they would feel it in their souls sooner or later. And I also felt good about introducing some of the youth to the Last Poets.

PM: Does hip-hop still have the power to change things in the ghetto?

C: Definitely, hip-hop has so much power. The government can’t stop it. The devil can’t stop it. It’s music, it’s art, it’s the voice of the people. And it’s being spoken all around the world and the world is appreciating it. And it is helping to change things. As much garbage as you might hear out there too, sometimes in the music there are some good things going on and along with those good things are seeds being planted, economics being taken care of. We getting to voice who we are, it’s a bringing together of people. There’s a lot of information being given in hip-hop. A lot of stepping stones being used. It’s definitely uplifting the ghetto and giving the ghetto a chance for its voice to be heard.

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