Common has been one of the most highly influential figures in rap music, keeping the sophisticated lyrical technique and flowing syncopations of jazz-rap alive in an era when the mainstream and hardcore have increasingly threatened to obliterate everything in its path. His outward-looking, nimbly performed rhymes and political consciousness haven't always fit the fashions of rap trends, but he has been praised by critics from the start and achieved mainstream popularity with the gold-selling Like Water for Chocolate (2000), Be (2005), and Finding Forever (2007). The rapper has since juggled his recording career with a series of high-profile acting roles. This hasn't hindered the reception of his subsequent albums, highlighted by The Dreamer/The Believer (2011), Nobody's Smiling (2014), and Black America Again (2016), which have routinely placed within the Top Five of the R&B/hip-hop chart. Through the Erykah Badu collaboration "Love of My Life (An Ode to Hip Hop)" and the Kanye West-produced "Southside," as well as his and John Legend's "Glory," written and recorded for the historical drama Selma, Common is a a three-time Grammy winner.
Common was born Lonnie Rashied Lynn on the South Side of Chicago. He honed his skills to the point where — performing as Common Sense — he was able to catch his first break, winning The Source magazine's Unsigned Hype contest. He debuted in 1992 with the single "Take It EZ," which appeared on his Relativity-released debut album, Can I Borrow a Dollar?; further singles "Breaker 1/9" and "Soul by the Pound" helped establish his reputation in the hip-hop underground. Common Sense consequently wound up on the Relativity label for his 1994 follow-up, Resurrection, which crystallized his reputation as one of the underground's best (and wordiest) lyricists. The track "I Used to Love H.E.R." attracted substantial notice for its clever allegory about rap's descent into commercially exploitative sex-and-violence subject matter, and even provoked a short-lived feud with Ice Cube. Subsequently, Common Sense was sued by a ska band of the same name, and was forced to shorten his own moniker to Common; he also relocated from Chicago to Brooklyn.
With his name popping up in all the right places, Common landed a major-label deal with MCA, and brought on Roots drummer ?uestlove as producer for his next project. Like Water for Chocolate was released in early 2000 and turned into something of a breakthrough success, attracting more attention than any Common album to date (partly because of MCA's greater promotional resources). Guests this time around included Macy Gray, MC Lyte, Cee-Lo, Mos Def, D'Angelo, jazz trumpeter Roy Hargrove, and Afro-beat star Femi Kuti (on a tribute to his legendary father Fela). Plus, the singles "The Sixth Sense" and "The Light" (the latter of which earned a Grammy nomination for Best Rap Solo Performance) earned considerable airplay. Following that success, Common set the stage for his next record with a featured appearance on Erykah Badu's 2002 Top Ten pop hit "Love of My Life (An Ode to Hip Hop)" (which won that year's Grammy for Best R&B Song). He issued his most personal work to date with Electric Circus, a sprawling album that polarized fans, in December of that year. Shortly thereafter, he initiated an acting career that began with a small role on the television series Girlfriends.
Be, a much tighter album that was produced primarily by Kanye West and released through West's GOOD Music label, followed in 2005 and netted four Grammy nominations. West remained on board for both 2007's Finding Forever — featuring "Southside," winner of that year's Grammy for Best Rap Performance — and the following year's lighter Universal Mind Control, though the Neptunes dominated the latter. For The Dreamer/The Believer, released in 2011 through Warner Bros., Common worked exclusively with longtime associate and friend No I.D. Much of the attention was directed at "Sweet," a track on which Common took swipes at rapper Drake. The same year, the AMC series Hell on Wheels debuted with Common as one of its main characters, emancipated slave Elam Ferguson. After the show's third season, Common released his tenth album — his first for Def Jam — titled Nobody Smiling. Much of the 2014 release focused on the destructive violence that was occurring within his hometown. His fourth Rap Albums number one, it debuted at number six on the Billboard 200 and was also his fourth consecutive album nominated for the Best Rap Album Grammy.
Common continued to alternate between film and music, and occasionally combined the careers to acclaimed effect. Featured in the Ava DuVernay-directed Selma, Common co-wrote and performed the historical drama's theme, "Glory," with John Legend. At the 87th Academy Awards, it won the Oscar for Best Original Song, and it also won the 2016 Grammy for Best Song Written for Visual Media. In 2016, following additional roles in films such as Run All Night and Suicide Squad, Common released Black America Again — its first single and title track a fiery examination of institutionalized racism and police brutality with a refrain from Stevie Wonder. Bilal, Marsha Ambrosius, and BJ the Chicago Kid were among the other contributors to the album, which became Common's eighth consecutive Top Ten R&B/hip-hop album. After several more film and television roles, and a collaboration with Karriem Riggins and Robert Glasper under the name August Greene, Common published a memoir, Let Love Have the Last Word, and prepared another album for a 2019 release date. ~ Steve Huey