Common is killing the game; or, in today’s parlance, Common has secured the bag. I’m almost 40 years old, which means that I grew up in the ’80s and ’90s listening to Common (née Lonnie Rashid Lynn Jr.) when he was rapping about watermelons and communism and asking to borrow a dollar. I still own a copy of his classic album Resurrection, which has his name listed as Common Sense—you know, before the lawsuit that had him change his name to Common.
The Common I see today is a far cry from the rapper Common (Sense) that used to be part of hip-hop great debates; his GOAT potential was always on the table. His One Day It’ll All Make Sense (my God, “Invocation” is perfect) and Like Water for Chocolate albums are indisputable classics. Be is a classic Kanye album (seriously, Kanye had the most memorable verse on the entire record, and the intro song “Be” is easily one of Kanye’s best beats of all time—fight me, bro).
The Common from the ’90s was still beefing with all comers—remember, this is the nigga who beefed with Ice Cube in his prime and Louis Farrakhan intervened, and who also took shots at both Hype Williams AND Puffy at their height on the Roots’ “Act Too (Love of My Life)” from 1999’s Things Fall Apart album. Com Sense from the City of Wind was Chicago’s answer to Nas, a street poet who participated in the culture he was helping to curate in real time. He was part of the Soulquarians collective, pushing the genre forward artistically.
And then shit changed. Common went from being a rapper’s rapper to “Glory,” a rap song for white people who read Ta-Nehisi Coates books. His albums weren’t bad, per se, but his verses were less biting, less edgy, less memorable and more generally vague mixed with corny attempts at crossover success. Gone was the social commentary in favor of comments to Jon Stewart on The Daily Show in 2015 like this, via HuffPost:
“If we’ve been bullied, we’ve been beat down and we don’t want it anymore. We are not extending a fist and we are not saying, ‘You did us wrong.’ It’s more like, ‘Hey, I’m extending my hand in love,’” he said to host Jon Stewart. “Let’s forget about the past as much as we can and let’s move from where we are now. How can we help each other? Can you try to help us because we are going to try to help ourselves, too.”
“Me as a black man, I’m not sitting there like, ‘Hey, white people, y’all did us wrong.’ We know that existed,” Common said. “I don’t even have to keep bringing that up. It’s like being in a relationship and continuing to bring up the person’s issues. Now I’m saying, ‘Hey, I love you. Let’s move past this. Come on, baby, let’s get past this.’”
Now, one could say that Common somehow stumbled into the sunken place, but that’s not accurate at all. Assuming that the sunken place has something to do with access to or dating white women, that’s not Common’s ministry, for the most part. He’s been linked with Taraji P. Henson, Serena Williams, Kerry Washington and, of course, the original knit-pants-procurement specialist, Erykah Badu. So what the hell happened? How does one of the most aggressive rappers whose entire M.O. was keepin’ it real become hip-hop for white people?
Simple. He secured the bag. And he found out what rappers who make a transition ALL say: Rap checks ain’t shit compared with movie, television, commercial and “White people love me” checks. Common made it into television and movies, and even as a struggle actor in Wanted and Smokin’ Aces, and an entirely unbelievable role as an NBA superstar in Just Wright opposite Queen Latifah—another ultimate bag securer—he was likely clearing more per film than most of his album royalty checks.
This man went from “Com, I make righteous bitches get low” to performing poetry at the White House to doing NPR Tiny Desks to winning an Oscar and several Grammys. He was a Gap model. He’s in Microsoft commercials as the damn voice of Microsoft. Common figured out how to secure the fuck out of the bag, and his rapping suffered for taking a backseat.
To be clear, I don’t think any of this is negative. At least not for him. Common might not be a very good rapper at this point, but hell—he used to be hungry. This nigga is eating now. A lot. When he wants to and where he wants. He went from British Knights to Balenciaga. When your drive as a rapper is largely tied to being underappreciated, lack of respect or anger at society, better circumstances and access to money and resources change shit. Then the angst subsides. It’s hard to stay mad in Ferragamo slippers and sippin’ Dom Perignon, or at least not that White Star!
In fact, I’ll bet Common laughs to the bank (or more likely laughs when direct deposit hits) every time he thinks about where he started and where he is now. He has made the absolute most of the hip-hop game. Folks reach out to him to do songs for major motion pictures that end up nominated for Academy Awards for the most vapid, boring, black-music-for-white-people bullshit (like “Stand Up for Something,” with Andra Day, which might as well have been called “Glory-er”), and they cut big checks.
Hell, I’m wondering if he even tries anymore, and he still secures the bag every time. His latest album, Black America Again, even missed the mark despite its supreme timeliness. There were some familiar flashes of brilliance and very solid production. It just didn’t have ... it.
Pretty much, he’s dad rap now—he is a father—but he still has all the respect of the hip-hop community for past achievements in the inner-city hip-hop arts. White people can look at Common and say, “I like that Common; ‘Glory’ was so moving and inspirational and really made me rethink that hippety-hop,” and the rest of us just say, “I mean, it’s good to see him rich and shit, and at least we got Like Water for Chocolate.” Common is out here being the change he wants to see. Corny as the results may be at times, I get how it happens.
Common has secured the bag.