Common’s sixth album is also his shortest, and perhaps his best.
“Be,” which hits stores Tuesday, checks in at a slender 11 tracks, reminiscent of short classic rap LPs like Nas’ “Illmatic,” Eric B. & Rakim’s “Paid in Full,” and KRS-One’s “Criminal Minded.”
After disappointing his hardcore fans with his last effort, the exploratory “Electric Circus” in 2002, Common retreated back into the studio with longtime friend Kanye West and Detroit producer Jay Dee. The result was the critically acclaimed “Be,” which leans on Common’s raw lyrical artillery of clever rhymes and metaphors.
Now 33, the artist born Lonnie Rashid Lynn on Chicago’s South Side spoke to The Associated Press about love, life and redemption:
AP: The buzz on this album is that it’s going to save hip-hop. Do you think hip-hop needs to be born again?
Common: I definitely think it needs some repairing. I can say, as a fan, it ain’t been satisfying and feeding my soul the way hip-hop has always done in the past. I think that I’m one person that can bring a balance to it. Hip-hop has become so much of a business, so much of a hustle, that the art of it has lost its purity and its innocence.
AP: You’ve been dubbed everything from a sort-of gangster to socially conscious. Does the latter fluster you?
Common: At first I did because I was talking about God, growing, but I wasn’t all perfect. I didn’t realize that once you talked about (things like) abortion, God, that people would only come to expect that. I feel now that being conscious is a blessing because that means you are aware. Like, just because I am talking about something conscious, they separated me from Jay-Z. And he might be talking about getting paper, but that doesn’t mean we ain’t part of the same culture.
AP: You’re one of Jay-Z’s favorite MCs.
Common: That’s an honor, like getting respect from one of the greatest. ... Jay-Z changed the movement of, like, black society. He can say, ‘Yo, I’m wearing button-up shirts,” and a whole generation of people (is) wearing button-up shirts instead of throwbacks.
AP: Creatively speaking, what was the lowest point of your career?
Common: Creatively, it’s between two albums, “Can I Borrow a Dollar” and “Electric Circus.”
AP: Perhaps your fans didn’t believe that the album essentially came from within you, rather more from your then-girlfriend Erykah Badu.
Common: (Laughs.) The album was all me at that time. I go through changes. If you look at my career, I started off holding 40-ounce (of beer) on my first cover. I grow and I go through changes. I think that there was a period in my life that I was trying to find myself, maybe trying to find myself in that relationship too. That was one of my transitional periods and that isn’t always going to fly with the masses.
AP: What do you say to critics who thought you got soft and impressionable during the making of your last album?
Common: Where I’m from and how I was raised, I never got to prove that I’m hard. My music never comes from anyone else.
AP: When you started recording “Be,” where you already broken up?
Common: We had been broken up for a little while, and it was a time where I was really grounded. It came to me at a hard time in life where I was really hungry.
AP: What are you trying to convey artistically on “Be”?
Common: That first of all, I’m a human, I’m a person. I experience different emotions like love, sexuality, creativity. I just want to show the sides of who I am as a being. I tried to not think about my sales, what I’ve done in the past. I was in the moment when making this album.
AP: After all these years, how do you keep on reinventing yourself and not get bored like most artists?
Common: I try to find new challenges, new things that excite me. On my last album it was about breaking boundaries and convention in hip-hop. Part of the challenge this time was that people where kind of doubting me, so that got me hungry.
AP: One of the things you tried that was, well, atrocious on your last album was attempting to sing! Are you subjecting us to that again on “Be”?
Common: (Laughs.) Yeah, I sing on the chorus on this album. Yo, why you playing! One time this magazine had an official opera singer who didn’t know who we were listen to me, Andre 3000, Pharrell Williams and 50 Cent I think. He only gave my singing some love.
AP: I thought you sounded like Scooby-Doo on “Jimi Was a Rock Star.”
Common: (Laughs.) Someone else told me that too. Sooner or later people will appreciate my sound. I think that “Electric Circus” is going to be one of those albums that people go back to and say, “That record was aiight.”
AP: Would you ever consider having another public relationship like you did with Erykah Badu?
Common: I don’t think I would. I wouldn’t hide behind a relationship either but one thing I do think is that sometimes you open up so much that you allow other energies to come in. And if it’s vulnerable at that time, then, you know, it can get messed up.
AP: Is that what happened between you and Erykah?
Common: No, it wasn’t a specific situation that (led to the breakup). It was just a gradual thing where we both felt like it was time to move on. We were so engulfed in each other we stopped taking care of ourselves as individuals. Like, for example, if something was going wrong with my business, I would just go down to Dallas and chill with the family. You can’t run from things, you have to also be focused on your work. But that relationship was meant to be for that time period. It has something to do with me evolving, for better and for worse.