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 as commercial trends have threatened to obliterate the style’s advancements. The Chicago MC’s outward-looking, nimbly performed rhymes and political consciousness haven’t always fit the fashions of rap trends, but his albums have consistently hit the Top Ten of the R&B/hip-hop chart and been praised by critics. Since achieving mainstream popularity with the gold-selling full-lengths Like Water for Chocolate (2000), Be (2005), and Finding Forever (2007), Common has juggled his recording career with a series of high-profile acting roles. This hasn’t hindered the reception of his subsequent output, which includes Nobody’s Smiling (2014) — his third Top Ten album — and A Beautiful Revolution, Pt. 1 (2020). Common is a three-time Grammy winner for the Erykah Badu collaboration “Love of My Life (An Ode to Hip Hop),” the Kanye West-produced “Southside,” and his and John Legend’s “Glory,” which also won an Academy Award.
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.
Common issued the first album under his new name in 1997. One Day It’ll All Make Sense capitalized on the fledgling resurgence of intelligent hip-hop with several prominent guests, including Lauryn Hill, Q-Tip, De La Soul, Erykah Badu, Cee-Lo, and the Roots’ Black Thought. The album was well-received in the press, and Common raised his profile with several notable guest spots over the next couple of years. He appeared on Pete Rock’s Soul Survivor, plus two high-watermark albums of the new progressive hip-hop movement, Mos Def and Talib Kweli’s Black Star and the Roots’ Things Fall Apart. Common also hooked up with indie rap kingpins Rawkus for a one-off collaboration with Sadat X, “1-9-9-9,” which appeared on the label’s seminal Soundbombing, Vol. 2 compilation.
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. In 2019, after several more film and television roles — and a collaborative LP with Karriem Riggins and Robert Glasper under the name August Greene — Common published a memoir, Let Love Have the Last Word, and released his twelfth solo LP, Let Love. Initially intended to be issued in early 2021, but brought forward digitally to coincide with the 2020 U.S. presidential election, his next release was entitled A Beautiful Revolution, Pt. 1. It saw Common work with Riggins and Glasper once again and featured guest spots from the likes of Stevie Wonder, Chuck D, and Lenny Kravitz.