Stay True
No matter where he goes in his life and career, Common always comes home to Chicago and hip-hop.
Words Paul Thompson
Images Jeremy Cliff

Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in the August/September 2014 issue of XXL Magazine.

Lonnie Rashid Lynn Jr., better known as Common, is briefly at peace. Seated at the head of the kitchen table in his grandmother’s sunlit Chicago home, he is enjoying a brief reprieve from a hectic promotional cycle. It’s three weeks before the release of his 10th album, Nobody’s Smiling, a much-anticipated project from Artium Records, which has a joint venture label deal with Def Jam Recordings. Artium is the brainchild of Dion “No I.D.” Wilson, Common’s longtime friend and collaborator. Wilson is the master producer who, in 2011, was named executive vice president at Def Jam. The two met in the fourth grade on Chicago’s infamous South Side, several miles from where Common and his family are now relaxing over an early dinner. Relatives and well-wishers filter in and out, ribbing Common—Rashid to his friends and family—for coming home empty-handed from the recent BET Awards in Los Angeles. But it’s all in good nature, and the atmosphere is the picture of relaxation. There is no showboating, no palpable tension, no politics. Despite the endless slew of radio spots, interviews and photo shoots—not to mention filming both a movie and a TV show—Rashid couldn’t be happier. Running contrary to his new album's title, Common is all smiles: “I don’t know if I’ve felt this excited about an album in a long time.”

If the 42-year-old Chicagoan seems so at peace with his own life, it begs the question: Why the sad album title? As he peers out the window, the smile fades a bit, and the answer presents itself. Over the past several years, Chicago has been vaulted into the national conversation as something of a war zone, violent crime dominating all the city’s national press coverage. The Fourth Of July weekend alone saw at least 16 murders and 82 people shot. In 2013, Chicago was witness to 415 murders, the most in the nation. (For comparison’s sake, New York suffered 333 that year, Los Angeles roughly 250.) That 415 figure was actually a marked decrease from 2012, when 506 Chicagoans were killed. Oftentimes, the parsing of these numbers by mainstream analysts makes the city look safer than it is: It has been pointed out, rightly so, that in 1994 Chicago’s murder count was a staggering 930. But what gross totals don’t account for is how the killings are distributed. “It’s really segregated,” Common explains. “Most of the people you see growing up on the South or West sides are Black.”

And with this marginalization of people of certain neighborhoods, ethnicities and socio-economic status comes dire consequences. As of mid-July, the Chicago Sun-Times reported 209 murders in Chicago; 132, or over 60 percent, have been Black. But for Common and No I.D., the approach is two-fold: address Chicago’s violent underside and help to rebuild, but also to shine a light on the parts of Chicago that aren’t so bleak. “It’s been a bad situation for a long time,” says No I.D. “Maybe it’s worse; maybe it’s just being covered now.”

Common echoes the sentiment: “The majority of the news is going to be about something bleak that’s going on in the world, something that’s not uplifting.” He adds, deflated, “That’s why I don’t look at the news.”

To hear Common speak about Chicago is to hear someone deeply devoted to his hometown. He grew up on the South Side, at 89th and Bennett. “I’m not going to sit here and act like I grew up with seven people sleeping in a room, but at first, when my mother was single, she was always working hard, working two jobs,” he recalls. His mother—the woman pictured with Common on the cover of 1997’s One Day It’ll All Make Sense—was an educator who helped hone young Rashid’s pen. “But it’s funny, man, I never really excelled in music classes,” he notes with a laugh. “I never picked up a saxophone, never picked up a piano. I came from the writing side, and that was my avenue into music.”

That was Dion, who, despite his talent for reading music and aptitude for the piano, only started producing out of necessity. “Being a producer wasn’t a goal in ’85,” No I.D. explains. “It was more like, ‘We like rapping, we like break dancing—we need something to rap and break dance to.’” By the time they rose to prominence with Resurrection (and “I Used To Love H.E.R.”) in 1994, both Common and No I.D. were well on their way to mastering their respective crafts, and Common especially became a revered figure in hip-hop’s underground. From there, his commercial profile steadily rose: After Resurrection and One Day It’ll All Make Sense (along with his 1992 debut, Can I Borrow A Dollar?) fulfilled his contract with New York-based Relativity Records, Common signed to MCA/Universal. It was there that he released his first gold-selling album, 2000’s Like Water For Chocolate. While 2002’s Electric Circus confounded fans and critics alike, Common was unshaken. His next record, 2005’s Be, was released on Geffen Records and Kanye West’s G.O.O.D. Music, and it served as a creative and commercial renaissance.