LOS ANGELES — Common was trying not to crack a smile. The rapper-turned-actor-turned-author was in the midst of having his face powdered in preparation for an interview with a cable music channel. His eyes were shut, as the makeup artist had requested stillness, and he had just been asked if he’d ever made any money off album sales.
“Naw,” he said, doing his best to keep a straight face. “I never made a lot of money from album sales.”
It’s not for lack of trying. Common’s first album for Warner Bros., “The Dreamer/The Believer,” was released Tuesday, and it follows five albums released under various Universal Music Group brands that have collectively sold 2.9 million in the U.S., according to Nielsen SoundScan.
“My album sales are good,” continued Common, born Lonnie Rashid Lynn Jr. on Chicago’s South Side almost 40 years ago. “I’m not taking anything away from them. But when you sell 5 million of your albums, that’s when you’re seeing money. You won’t make your money off of record sales. You make it off of branding and other opportunities, if you’re afforded those.”
It’s safe to say that Common has been. The former Gap model has multiple films in the pipeline, including a trip to Sundance for the coming indie film “LUV” and a role alongside Jennifer Garner in next year’s “The Odd Life of Timothy Green.” He will soon have completed a starring role on the first season of AMC’s post-Civil War drama “Hell on Wheels,” and he’s written an autobiography, “One Day It’ll All Make Sense,” and a children’s book, “I Like You but I Love Me.” Somehow, amid all the above, Common found the time to return to hip-hop. The completed album, “The Dreamer/The Believer,” backs away from the studio gloss of 2008’s “Universal Mind Control” and returns to his wordy, socially aware roots.
“It’s an album about putting out music for the love of it, and I think that’s the tone of the album,” Common said. “It’s now not my only source of expression, and it’s also not my only way to make a living. I do this because I love it, and I owe it to the culture that helped me live my life and gave me a voice.”
Common isn’t leaving much to chance. Earlier on that late December day, the artist was getting ready for a mid-afternoon taping of Chelsea Handler’s E! talk show, “Chelsea Lately.” A dressing room debate as to whether to wear a sweater or a black jacket would ultimately last longer than the interview with Handler, and Common was setting aside outfits for events that were six weeks away. When it was call time, Common gathered everyone around the dressing room for a prayer of thanks.
“There’s something about his presence,” said Joe Gayton, creator, writer and executive producer of “Hell on Wheels.” “He has a dignity to him.”
Still, Fox News labeled him “vile” in a headline last spring. The network’s talk show host Sean Hannity called attention to some of Common’s more politically minded raps after the artist was invited to the White House to perform at the Michelle Obama-hosted “An Evening of Poetry.”
“There I was in the middle of some kind of political propaganda,” said Common, who attended the reading despite the scrutiny. “I was super-nervous. I didn’t know what they’d be thinking. My heart was beating out of my chest.”
Earlier this week, it looked as if Common would face another attack after the New York Post reported that esteemed poet Maya Angelou, whose work is sampled on the new album, was “horrified” at some of the language on the CD. But the hullabaloo lasted all of 24 hours before Angelou publicly declared Common a “genius.”
“I believed that was an impeccable way to introduce my album,” he said. You have the song ‘The Dreamer,’ which embodies everything that I’m about, and then you have Maya Angelou doing a poem about dreaming. You’ve never experienced a living legend such as Maya Angelou being on a hip-hop album.”
At their best, Common’s songs seem to reference ‘70s soul rather than the grit of underground rap. To be sure, new songs such as “Ghetto Dreams” may have some calling for explicit content stickers, but his tales of street life are character portraits about perseverance rather than dramatic glorifications. “Cloth” sees him simply wishing for an emotional connection, “Gold” finds Common struggling to hang onto his Chicago roots and “Lovin’ I Lost” is an intense, Motown-like exploration of heartache.
That’s not to say that Common isn’t aggressive. Throughout his career, his albums have toed a line between streetwise poetry, a penchant for battle rapping and a hearty addiction to the opposite sex. The new album’s “Sweet” stands out in its forcefulness, a boastful hip-hop attack that sees Common lashing out at those he believes are “soft.” No doubt, that label at times could be applied to Common, as well his close pal Kanye West, whose “808s & Heartbreak” stands as one of the most open-wounded hip-hop albums ever.
It’s been widely speculated that Drake is one of the song’s targets, yet Common later praises the Canadian rapper-singer as one of the bright young voices in hip-hop. Engage Common about the song, and it’s clear it’s mostly about him, a sense of reclaiming his battle-rap fury that’s largely been muted by his Hollywood roles. If it sounds out of step with modern hip-hop, that’s because nostalgia should sound of another era.
“I love Kanye’s ‘808s’,” Common said. “That joint is great. I love Luther Vandross. I listen to jazz. I like singing too, but I wanted to show people what hip-hop is. That’s just what it is. I can still like your song and want to get in the ring and challenge you. I might think you’re talented and respect you, but I’ll still call you a soft cat.”
Call Common old school, but don’t say he isn’t dedicated to his craft. Gayton recalled a moment on the set of “Hell on Wheels” when Common’s character had to sharpen a knife. “We gave him a stone and a knife and he sat in his tent alone for two hours just practicing how to sharpen a knife,” Gayton said. “This guy just works. He’s also humble.”
“If you have a microphone, you can help people,” Common said. “You can give them inspiration. You can raise awareness. I don’t hold every rapper responsible to that, but I do believe that is my responsibility.”