Common is one of the most respected rappers walking the Earth. His sales may not necessarily reflect that. He’s cracked the Top 100 album/R&B/rap charts in the U.S. plenty, and reached No. 1 a handful of times, but he’s never gone platinum; there are a plethora of hip-hop artists with less talent, work ethic or maturity who have.
But Common’s place in contemporary music culture is more enduring, creative and important than a lot of hyped-up rappers who have come and gone.
His high-quality output started in 1992, and he was blazing right out the block. His music was smart, soulful, jazzy, bumpin’, creative, lyrical, informed, filled with conscious lyrics about liberation, corruption, empowerment, love and peace, an ethic reflected in his work on Rock the Vote, AIDS/HIV awareness and his own Common Ground Foundation.
He’s worked with the top echelon of rappers and producers, including Tribe Called Quest, Pharrell, Pete Rock, Kanye West, Mos Def, Canibus, Lauryn Hill, The Roots, Kid Cudi and J Dilla.
Common’s been known to mix it up on a more street level, sparking diss tracks with heavy hitters like Ice Cube and Drake. One track, “I Used to Love H.E.R.,” about the evolution of hip-hop culture, ignited a little East Coast/West Coast beef, which was settled amicably. But he was deemed conscious and positive enough to perform for the Obamas at the White House.
He’s made moves that seemed aimed to cross over. Like collaborating on a song with the Jonas Brothers, wearing bohemian and hippie clothing, doing movies, fashion modeling and commercials. The man stayed true to the most appealing parts of hip-hop with a relentless positivity that some embraced and others found too bright.
His new song “The Day the Women Took Over” is a reinterpretation of Dr. Dre’s L.A. Riots track “The Day the Niggaz Took Over.”
But Common makes it an ode to women like Michelle Obama, Oprah Winfrey and Rosa Parks. Here is the positivity again, leaning toward platitudes. Common seems comfortable being the more nice guy, coming with righteous positivity instead of righteous anger in “The Day the Women Took Over”: “We openin’ doors and pullin’ out chairs again… Toilet seats down. That’s a no-brainer.”
That works just right for his entry into the Monterey Jazz Festival. Common has utilized his popularity to bring audiences along on his creative renewal. In 2015 he and John Legend won the Oscar for Best Original Song for “Glory” from the film Selma. And last year he released one of his most acclaimed and freshest albums in years, Black America Again.
Jazz and hip-hop have crossed paths many times. Hip-hop acts who have gotten down with jazz include Digable Planets, US3, Gang Starr (whose Jazzmatazz series enlisted players like Kenny Garrett and Lonnie Liston Smith), Nas, Mac Miller and CeeLo Green.
And plenty of jazz cats have dabbled with hip-hop: Branford Marsalis, Don Byrd, Ron Carter, Maceo Parker, Quincy Jones. Herbie Hancock’s “Rocket” was a staple in breakdance battles.
Hip-hop has graced Monterey Jazz Festival stages. Robert Glasper, who came out in 2011, busted out some hip-hop beats. That same year, Puerto Rican rapper Rico Pabon performed with the John Santos Sextet.
Common is still an anomaly in a jazz festival setting, but not a shock.
The title track of Black America Again is a sweeping and urgent message song produced by Robert Glasper and features Stevie Wonder on vocals and Esperanza Spalding on bass. On “Pyramids” he samples Ol Dirty Bastard and raps furiously over an ’80s synthesizer line: “I walk like an Egyptian on a mission to listen to conditions/ Envision a vision of what we wishing/ I’ve been commissioned to de-prison the prism of your mind/ Spit the wisdom of the one divine.”
On “Unfamiliar” he samples John Cameron’s “Half Forgotten Daydreams,” but cut up like he took the record and smashed it into pieces, then put it back together, disjointed but still working.
There is just enough dissonance and protest to flirt with art music and flip a middle finger to the pop charts. The album is oblique and jazzy and soulful, a mash-up of black music that’s lyrical enough that hip-hop heads may can dig it, but not so on fire that it drives away the old heads in the main arena.
One key may be if jazz fans don’t pay too much attention to the repetitive samples – which are more like a bed of percussion and rhythm than a traditional melody or accompaniment – and pay attention to the lyrics. That’s where it’s at. The samples are the concrete that the rapper stomps, strides and dances across.
Common is on a mission. You can feel it. That’s going to be something to see live.