Common, “Work Out” (Originally Published December/January 2012)

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STILL WEARING GYM CLOTHES, Common slouches in a chair in a 16th-fl oor suite at Public, a posh Ian Schrager hotel in Chicago’s Gold Coast neighborhood. His quarters are pristine, blinding white: white curtains, white furniture, white candles, white orchids, white walls. It feels like heaven’s waiting room, with three green apples on the coffee table serving as a fi nal test of
temptation. “Ask me anything,” he says. “I want the article to be interesting.”

In a genre where youthful rebelliousness trumps just about every other suit, Common knows that he doesn’t have the edgiest reputation. Too many kufis, romantic records and Nag Champa sticks for that. He wants people to know that he drinks, parties and even, on occasion, might wind up watching quivering female flesh at a gentleman’s club. “I think some of the stigma of me being a conscious guy and not enjoying myself has fallen off a little bit,” he says. “I ain’t out all the time, but I have a little fun, and I talk shit a little bit. It ain’t in there like I’m reading a book and trying to philosophize.”

As an example, he describes a boozy birthday dinner for Nas held in September at Catch, a new restaurant in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District. He, Nas, Jay-Z and Steve Stoute sat together at a table, drinking too much wine and swapping industry war stories. “It felt like we had the godfathers,” Common says. His seat at this Apalachin meeting may seem unlikely, but he is indisputably a made man. Once a nasally Midwestern kid, he segued from underground battle rapper to neo-soul moralizer to his current role of dignifi ed adultcontemporary musician. He’s proud of this legacy. “No matter what, me wearing crocheted pants or doing love songs, nobody could ever come to me and say I ain’t a MC. At this point, I feel like I’m one of the greatest to ever do it. I’ll go against anybody when it come to MCing… I grew up watching Muhammad Ali. When I get on the mic, I’m the greatest.”

Still, Common is a refugee from a more tangible, predigital era. He’s never owned a computer, and he paws helplessly at the surface of his new iPad like a kitten at a mirror. When asked what contemporary rap he listens to, he doesn’t have a long list. “Kanye.” There’s a pause, then he adds Jay-Z and Lil Wayne. In 2012, the man adored among purists for 1994’s “I Used to Love H.E.R.” mostly listens to rappers your mother has heard of. When members of Harlem’s new ASAP collective recently approached Common in Barneys department store in New York, he had no clue who they were. “I definitely will acknowledge I’m not staying up on everything that’s going on,” he says, citing jazz and rock as genres of music he also enjoys. “We need artists like J. Cole and Kendrick Lamar, who really appreciate hip-hop. I actually like some of Rick Ross’s stuff , as well. His music is fun to me. I could hear a Waka Flocka song in the club and appreciate that it’s got everybody on 30,000 charged up. But usually I breeze through. I’m not seeking it out.”

Common may not pay attention to the fringes of hip-hop like he once did, but his interests outside the genre have raised his profile within it. “Once he became an actor, the commercial product really developed in a way,” says No I.D., whose basement studio was a crucible for both Common and Kanye. “Now he could really be a star.” No I.D. believes hip-hop classicism is so deeply embedded in Common’s DNA that total compromise is impossible. “Even when he tried to sell out, he don’t sell out,” he says. “Even when he try to make a hit record, he put the break dancing in it or something artistic. He always has been an ambassador for honorable skill sets.”

Many rappers roll with a cadre of goons and weed carriers. Common’s entourage looks more like the cast of a BET reality show about making it in Hollywood. He travels with his longtime manager, some 20-something dudes who dress like The Cool Kids and several women. While cruising through downtown Chicago in an SUV, his assistant, a slender woman wearing leopard-print leggings, a belt with a giant Louis Vuitton buckle and turquoise glasses, extols the virtues of healthy eating. “Raw food is the business!” she says. Another woman, with knee-high boots and gold earrings the size of Hershey’s chocolate bars, chimes in by describing how to soak almonds for homemade cereal. They appear to make most of the logistical and moment-tomoment decisions. “I love female energy around,” Common says. “It adds a comfort to certain situations. It ain’t have to be anything sexual. The women that are around me, they hold positions, they work.”

Common has more-complicated interactions with women than most rap artists. For starters, they compose a significant percentage of his fan base. With chiseled features, a soothing voice and a positive image, he is something of a boyfriend shirt: comfortable and reassuring, masculine but nonthreatening. He played the lead in Just Wright, a 2010 romantic comedy with Queen Latifah. This has become a familiar position for an artist whose first album included “Heidi Ho,” a song with lines like, “Your booty black is so undespicable/You squaw pie, tack-haired muthafuckin’ jiggaboo.”

Common’s real-life romantic history includes both Serena Williams and Erykah Badu—both of whom are more famous than he is. In his recent autobiography, One Day It’ll All Make Sense, Common described being dumped over the phone by Badu, a woman he calls his “first love” and “first heartbreak.” After the book came out, she texted him, unhappy that he had been so frank. “She was like, ‘Man, you telling all types of stories!’ ” Common says. “When you reveal certain things, you don’t know it’s going to affect people like that. That’s why I don’t talk too much when I’m in a relationship… Those aspects of my life, I like to keep in a sacred and respectable place.”