And for 15 years at that -- a stunning feat in a field where artists routinely get killed, blow their money or lose their minds. Common's long, consistent career testifies to God-given lyrical gifts, mental maturity and a circle of forward-thinking artists and peers. Common has endured because, in the end, it's not an act: He's all about the art of hip-hop.
But when Common raps, he sounds young, like ain't a damn thing changed since '92. His inimitable flow -- at once sharp and elastic -- ranks among rap's most athletic.
On 2007's Finding Forever, he unhurriedly struts verbal tightropes with nonchalant abandon, every bit as unusual and abstract as ever. Living between couplets, he rides a bass line like a train on a rail, totally in the pocket and, at times, seemingly improvised. Common messes with poetry, extends song-length metaphors, and drops mischievous entendres in an effortless Chi-town drawl. Rap is often over-serious, but Common puts the "play" in wordplay.
On the topical tip, he raps about love, abortion, spirituality, civil rights and vegetarianism. He raps about sex a lot, but foils tender/nasty sex songs against respectful pro-woman respect-fests. Compared to dumb-simple radio rap, Common is the perennial "fresh alternative," and it makes sense that the Erykah Badu-dating, macram & eacute;-hat wearing, tofu-eating, tight-sweater-wearing, Gap-ad-appearing, silver screen-aspiring sex-symbol gets pigeonholed as "coffee shop rap."
But listen more closely, and you'll see that Common's flow is not a reaction against vacuous party music or rote gangsterism. He's not trying to atone for the Ying Tang Twinz's artistic sins. He's not throwing water on rap's raging fires of misogyny or crass capitalism to raise smoke-signals. If he makes rap both Tipper Gore and bohemian poets can get down to, it's not on purpose.
Common never panders to a given audience: this is just how he raps. It's a flawless style, an un-teachable, untouchable, paradigm-shifting force of nature. When he unleashed it on the world with 1992's Can I Borrow a Dollar? and his follow-up classic Ressurection (1994), Common blew minds, inspiring legions of deep-thinking, lyrically dexterous followers.
Musically, Common's kept superior company. From early albums with No I.D. (the sample-loving Chicago producer who mentored Kanye West) to mid-career gems laced by true-school legends J. Dilla and DJ Premier (as well as the amorphous Soulquarians collective, the brains behind the Roots' sound), he's come generational full-circle with Kanye West, the brightest production star of this millennium. The people who co-create Common's albums do it as a point of pride, an opportunity to work with a living legend.
Common is at WSU's Beasley Coliseum on Wednesday, Oct. 24, at 7 pm. $30. Visit www.ticketswest.com or call 325-SEAT.