You might be forgiven for knowing rapper Common only for his immaculate facial hair and from his recent roles in a spate of Hollywood films ranging from his cameo alongside the mighty Denzel Washington in 2007’s American Gangster to his voicing of the soulful penguin Seymour in Happy Feet Two. Following in the footsteps of other hip-hop giants such as Mos Def and Ice Cube, it seems as if Common had laid down his mic once and for all a number of years ago, moving away from the declining world of post-millennial thoughtful lyricism and into the more lucrative realm of acting, albeit as a dancing and rapping penguin.
To merely see Common as a rapper turned actor, however, would be reductive and ultimately wrong. In fact, in between auditions, Common has been studiously writing and recording since his seminal 2000 release Like Water For Chocolate. Having been at the forefront of a new wave of hip-hop production at the turn of the century through working closely with pioneering beatsmith J Dilla, Common has continued to be an unassuming yet powerfully influential force in the hip-hop scene. Over the last decade he has collaborated continually with his Soulquarian brethren such as The Roots, D’Angelo and ex-girlfriend Erykah Badu, as well as racking up production features from the likes of his previous label boss Kanye West and even finding time to lay down a (questionable) verse or two with our very own Lily Allen. 2014, then, sees Common expanding on his wealth of recorded material in releasing his tenth LP Nobody’s Smiling, an homage and call to action over the continuing violence and troubles in his hometown of Chicago.
Carrying the weight of this hip-hop history and acclaim with him, Common took to the stage of the O2 Academy in Bristol last night. Only the second show on his “Nobody’s Smiling Tour” and his first appearance in the city for a number of years, the anticipation in the Sunday night crowd surrounding me was palpable. The show hadn’t sold out though; a signifier of the declining profitability of Common’s niche, meaning that he has gone from winning Grammys and making Gold albums to having to recruit the likes of commercial artist Big Sean just to ensure radio play for his singles. The gaps in the crowd were soon forgotten, however, as soon as Common bounded onto the stage and launched into well-known tracks such as “Go”, “The Corner” and “Testify”, hardly pausing for a breath between the slick transitions. His energy was infectious; at least fewer people meant more room to dance.
Like a true veteran of the live circuit, Common knew what the crowd wanted and worked his way through the majority of his well known tracks from the early 2000’s Like Water For Chocolate, Be and Finding Forever whilst managing to slot in the inevitable spate of new material without it jarring with the atmosphere of the set too much. Common is renowned for his lyrical dexterity and he made sure to prove this to the crowd by throwing in a three-minute freestyle prompted by the word “positivity” which was shouted from the crowd. The freestyle wasn’t the only interlude; there were displays of Grandmaster Flash-style turntablism from Common’s two accompanying DJs as well as a tasteful solo from his live keyboardist. The addition of the keyboardist was a nice touch since many of Common’s productions rely so heavily on piano sampling and the live element helped to keep the set from stagnating into a stale playback of songs. There was a questionable, and cringe-worthy, moment when Common decided to pull a woman from the crowd and sweatily serenade her like a newly-divorced drunken uncle at a wedding, but you can’t blame a man for trying I guess…
With the set running just under a short-but-sweet 90 minutes, Common proved that he is still a force to be reckoned with on record, as an influence to new artists, and as a live performer. Just make sure you politely decline if he ever tries to serenade you.
[This piece was originally published in Intermission Magazine on 10/11/14]