BY REBECCA LOUIE
Between the crude booty jams and thug anthems of mainstream hip hop lies Common’s ground – a place of soul-searching amid samples and quiet reflection in rhyme. “There are some things going on in hip hop that could be improved, I think we all acknowledge that,” says the Chicago rapper, whose new album, “Finding Forever,” is out Tuesday. “I’m not looking to point the finger. I’m just looking to the sky really, looking to elevate.”
For over a decade, Common was a staple in hip hop’s underground, spitting out socially aware songs like 1994’s “I Used to Love H.E.R.,” about the commercial downfall of hip hop, and 2000’s “A Song for Assata,” about Black Panther Assata Shakur. After his 2005 Kanye West-produced album,”Be,” got four Grammy nods, sold over 800,000 copies and hit No. 2 on the Billboard 200, Common became a mainstream darling. He banked endorsement deals (The Gap, Converse), movie roles (opposite Denzel Washington and Angelina Jolie), and launched a hat line named Soji and a children’s book series. “Forever,” which reinstates West as primary producer, will be sold in Starbucks.
“I remember my mother saying, ‘It’s gonna be hard for you to top ‘Be,'” says the artist born Lonnie Rashid Lynn Jr. “I laughed and was like, ‘Man, Ma…!’ But I felt more confident going into this album. There was less pressure because I had other creative outlets. When I would work on music, it was just another fun aspect of creativity, instead of my only source of making a living.”
On “Forever,” songs range from the proletariat paean “The People” to the lovelorn “I Want You.” The culturally introspective “Black Maybe” opens with the supposition: “I heard a white man’s ‘yes’/is a black ‘maybe.'” “That song was just dealing with being a person of color and dealing with obstacles that come with that,” says Common, 35. “Things that white America may get are harder for us to achieve because of how society has been set up. It’s not just a black thing. But I speak up about the black culture because black people in America and abroad have suffered from so much oppression and lack of self-esteem and self love. I feel like we got to build it back up so a child, a person, can start off evenly.”
Part of the Soulquarian movement of the late 1990s (a groundswell of like-minded artists that included former girlfriend Erykah Badu and rappers Mos Def and Talib Kweli), Common has often been dubbed a “socially conscious” rapper. “Originally, I didn’t like being put in that box; it kind of separated me from the other hip-hop artists and even made them look at me like I was self-righteous,” says Common, who, because of his rep, was invited on Oprah Winfrey’s show this spring in an episode devoted to the problems with hip-hop culture.