On a sunny October day, Common rolls up to Chicago’s West Loop Athletic Club to shoot hoops. He lives in Los Angeles now, but having played point guard for Luther South High School, after working as a ball boy for the Bulls in the early 1980s, his hometown basketball creds are official. He stretches out, chops it up with a couple old-timers and poses for pictures with beaming employees. Soon Common is playing 21 with the local gym rats. Near the end of the last game, he and several players all have points in the high teens. After snatching a rebound, Common evades a defender, bounces left and floats a 15-foot jumper from the baseline. Game.
Here’s the firsthand scouting report on Common: He’s not a highflier. He doesn’t take acrobatic shots with perilous degrees of difficulty. But at six feet tall and equipped with the muscle density needed to play Hollywood bodyguards, he’s bigger and quicker and stronger than expected. When he has the rock, he jab steps and feints until he gets an open look at the basket. On defense, he crouches low, in the defensive stance of someone who never learned the slippery shortcuts of laziness. In short, he’s a worker. Famed basketball coach John Wooden once said that sports are not for building character—that instead, they reveal it. In the case of Common, a 39-year-old rapper who has built himself into a cross-platform entertainer and kingpin of corporate endorsements, it’s impossible not to see truth in the adage.
Hip-hop has a zillion rags-to-riches narratives, but Common’s might be the most unusual. During a 19-year career that began in 1992 with his largely ignored debut, Can I Borrow a Dollar?, he has never had a single crack the Billboard Top 40 chart. Of the eight albums he’s released on major labels, none has been certified platinum. As an actor, he has not delivered the type of breakthrough performance that launched fellow rappers Will Smith and Ice Cube to cinematic stardom. Yet somehow Common enjoys every trapping of superstardom. According to Forbes, he made $27 million during the past three years. He’s a spokesman for corporations and international brands. He draws appreciative handshakes from men and nervous giggles from women when he ventures out in public. He has even dated Serena Williams, the pinup girl for physically imposing perfection.
In December, Common will release The Dreamer, The Believer into the weird, nebulous space between music, film and corporate marketing. It’s his ninth album, a numeric indicator of a long slog through which few artists are able to carry the hearts and minds of the public. His most recent work—2007’s Finding Forever and 2008’s Universal Mind Control—has been more of a stagger than a victory lap. There was some quality material, but the former thinly retraced the boom-bap blueprint of 2005’s Be, and the latter delved awkwardly into electronic experimentation. At times, especially with Common’s growing focus on acting (his latest project, a series on AMC called Hell on Wheels, debuted in November), rapping has seemed to be his second job.
This time, he promises a rejuvenated performance. The Dreamer, The Believer is produced entirely by Chicago stalwart No I.D., one of Common’s original collaborators from nearly two decades ago. Maybe it’s the time-capsule spirit that makes him so enthusiastic. “I actually think this album is one of the greatest pieces of music I’ve ever been a part of,” Common says. “I think that I was able to open a chamber and find something in me that I hadn’t done in a minute. As much as I want to be one of the greatest actors ever in the world and be the new star in films and television, I really, in my soul, love rapping and MCing.”
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