I Used To Love H.E.R. (and her, too)
Lonnie Rashid Lynn, Jr. is a lot of things, but “common” is not one of them. Of course, he’s a rapper. Not many people can hold a flame to his consistency and breadth of subject matter. He’s also a humanitarian, an orator, an activist, and a hooper as well. He’s an actor and a writer, but also a poet; a true student of the game. He’s from Chicago but went to college in Florida and has lived in both New York and LA. He’s been pushing his own creative boundaries and constantly re-inventing himself for over 25 years now and I don’t see him slowing down.
He’s been a lot of places and done even more things but the one thing that has always been a constant in his life are the women he’s loved. Whether romantically or otherwise, Common has never been shy about his affinity for Black women.
As we take a look at his extraordinary music career ranging 25 years and 11 studio albums, there is no better way to do it than through the lens of the women who’ve had his heart, in one way or another, each of whom have influenced his albums almost as much as his life.
Dr. Mahalia Ann Hines — Can I Borrow A Dollar?, Resurrection
Common’s mother will always have a special place in his heart. After reading his memoir, you could argue they are best friends. Raising a young Black kid in Chicago is no easy task but their relationship shows just how strong a mother’s love is. A doctor herself, Common speaks on how she placed such a high value on education, which is why she was originally against his idea to drop out of FAMU to pursue his rap career.
“The first emotion I ever felt was love. The love I felt was for my mother and her love for me.” — Common (One Day It’ll All Make Sense, memoir)
Eventually, out of love and support for her son’s dreams, she gave him three years to “make it”, demanding a promise from him to return to school if it didn’t work out. Well, it’s safe to say it did. Common came home, started touring and released his debut album Can I Borrow A Dollar in 1992 to decent, yet not stellar, reviews.
It wasn’t until his next album Resurrection (1994) that heads started to turn. With his childhood friend Dion, better known as the now-legendary No I.D., he dropped what I consider to be a classic. In a year that had debut albums from Biggie, Outkast, and Nas, Common managed to hold his own. Sure, he’d proved himself in the rap game but more importantly, he made good on his promise to his mother, which I’m sure meant just as much to him.
Kim and Omoye — One Day It’ll All Make Sense
If Resurrection was his invitation to the party, ODIAMS (1997) was his first dance. Not only were his career and skills blossoming, but his life was as well. During this time he had his first child, Omoye, with his hometown sweetheart, Kim.
“I felt certain that I would have a child with this woman.” — Common (One Day It’ll All Make Sense, memoir)
The synthesis of his career and personal life come together perhaps most notably on his track “Retrospect for Life” with his friend Lauryn Hill. The song is about a young couple deciding not to get an abortion, though things may not be perfect or exactly how they planned; eerily similar to his own circumstances.
Even as he welcomed his daughter Omoye into the world, fans could sense him birthing a style of his own too. For example, we see him explore the freedom to talk about his emerging spirituality in songs like “Gaining One’s Definition (G.O.D.)” with Cee-Lo. With some features from Q-Tip, De La Soul, and Black Thought, it’s easy to see where he got his “conscious” labeling from but perhaps his most notable collab on this album came on “All Night Long” where he joined forces with Erykah Badu for the first time.
Let’s just say the connection was a preview of what was to come for him.
Erykah Badu — Like Water For Chocolate, Electric Circus
This is probably the most interesting time is his career, to me. Common always felt connected to Erykah even before they were together. In fact, they became friends while he was with Kim and she was dating Andre 3000. Strangely enough, Badu and Kim even shared the same due date! In his book, he makes it clear that their friendship was simply platonic to start, but before long they found their way together.
During the early 2000s, while with Erykah, he made some of his most polarizing work. In a time when he dropped some of his most famous songs “The Light”, “6th Sense”, and “Come Close” he also dropped Electric Circus, one of his worst albums. But that came to be the nature of their relationship. When it was good, it was great, and when it wasn’t, it sucked. Though at one point they were engaged, history will tell their story as just another “fling”.
“When I was with Erykah, I held myself back… after we broke up… I found a way to reshape myself as a man.” — Common (One Day It’ll All Make Sense, memoir)
In a lot of ways, the two albums represent the parts of his personality she enticed the most. Whereas LWFC (2000) was earthy, soulful, and Black righteous, Electric Circus (2002) was funky, eccentric, and sometimes just flat out weird.
Highlighted by production from his Soulquarians squad including Jay Dilla, The Roots, and D’Angelo, Common sought self-expression more than anything in this era and he got just that. Unfortunately, when Badu ended things shortly after Electric Circus hit stores, he was left with a lackluster album, and no muse to boot. I suppose the only place to go from there was up!
Taraji P. Henson — Be, Finding Forever
They say you can’t hold a good man down. Well, Common proved that to be true by releasing Be in 2005 and Finding Forever in 2007. This time, he gave the production reigns to someone he shared his beloved hometown with, Kanye West. Ye produced pretty much every track on both outside of a couple gems from Dilla but this isn’t about either of them; it’s about Taraji.
Common’s relationship with her was a pivotal one. Not only was it his first serious one after Erykah, but it also began to open his horizons to a new art form: acting. As much as he loved rapping and poetry, he always saw himself as a true creator and never wanted to be limited to one style of expression.
“I couldn’t believe how good I felt after every (acting) class. The more I went… the more I knew (what) I wanted to be.” — Common (One Day It’ll All Make Sense, memoir)
Once again, as was the case with his mom, Kim, and Erykah, we saw the fusion of his personal life and his music but this go around, his 3rd love of acting got into the mix. Check out some of his music videos from the era and notice how theatrical they are. Here is “I Want You”, “The Corner” and most notably Be’s “Testify” starring Henson herself.
In the Taraji era, we saw Common succeed in rapping and acting, making him a true dual-threat. He was beginning to book roles in big films and by the time 2007 ended, he’d made appearances in Smokin’ Aces and American Gangster. Since then? He’s been in almost 30 movies and well over a handful of TV shows. If nothing else, their relationship taught him to have confidence in himself as an actor, a confidence that seems to have paid off.
Serena Williams— Universal Mind Control, The Dreamer/The Believer
After releasing back-to-back #1 Rap albums, one of which was rated perfect by XXL, there is no time for regression; you’ve got to keep it moving. When Common began dating Serena, it marked the first time he was dating someone with such a large international fan base. It’s not clear exactly when they began and ended (thanks Drake) but during their relationship, Serena won at least 5 tennis Grand Slams. That’s enough to intimidate the average man but she wasn’t the only one busting her a**. Common proved he could answer the bell.
“There have been numerous times when I asked for something and it didn’t happen. Serena said this to me: ‘Remember to put the Kingdom first.’” — Common (One Day It’ll All Make Sense, memoir)
Common released some good music during this time. 2008’s Universal Mind Control was highlighted by several collabs with the Neptunes. It wasn’t his best work but you can’t really lose with Pharrell on your squad. As if that wasn’t enough, his next album in 2011 The Dreamer/The Believer featured Maya Angelou, Fauntleroy, and Nas plus was produced entirely by No I.D. All while still blossoming in Hollywood, this relationship brought out some of his most dynamic output.
Chicago — Nobody’s Smiling, Black America Again
“… and what I loved most she had so much soul.” — Common
Note: There are many rumors that he and actress Regina Hall dated after filming Barbershop: The Next Cut during this time and that she even inspired him to begin making Black America Again. However, none of those reports have been confirmed.
Almost as if to complete his own artistic odyssey, Common has come back home with his last two releases. Hip Hop is full of artists in love with their hometown, but few have repped their city as hard as him. Kanye may have said it best in his personified ode to the Windy City, ”Homecoming” which of course was created to pay homage to Common’s “I Used To Love H.E.R.” which sported the same concept and structure.
Nothing compares to a mother’s love, or a kiss from your child, or falling in love for the first time. But there is no place like home. Home is where the heart is.
In 2014, he dropped Nobody’s Smiling as a direct response to the violence and crime rate in the Chi. Evidenced by the album’s somber title and lead single “Kingdom” featuring Vince Staples, the album was super Chicago from its features to its tonality and subject matter. His most recent album to date, Black America Again, dropped almost a year ago and was more of the same. Stevie Wonder, Marsha Ambrosius, Bilal, and Syd all pitch in to help him unite us as fans, Blacks folks, and Americans alike after the divisive 2016 presidential election.
On a track toward the end of the album, he gives us “The Day Women Took Over” featuring BJ The Chicago Kid which in its own way is a culmination of his entire career. His undying love for his city and it’s artists, his people, and the music have always walked hand-in-hand but he’s never been afraid to create through the lens of respect and love for women along the way, something we could all learn something from. That, more than anything else, separates him from the pack of ordinary rappers.
It makes him extraordinary.
– Troy Harris II (Grits & Gospel)
PS — I was inspired to do this piece because I recently finished Common’s memoir, and it was a blast. One Day It’ll All Make Sense (quoted several times throughout) is a refreshing and insightful view into one of Hip Hop’s elite touching on his music, his muses, and much, much more; a true must-read for hardcore and casual fans alike.
[Extra]Ordinary is a series of underrated, underestimated and under-appreciated people in Hip Hop. They are the ones who get looked over for one reason or another despite having rangy influence, tremendous vision, and/or a s***-ton of talent. These are some of your favorite rappers’ favorite rappers; and you ain’t eeeem know it. My job here is to enlighten their artistry in your eyes so that they may have the chance to evolve from being extra ordinary to extraordinary. Originally published on Grits & Gospel.