My newest internet relationship, wait my only one, is with Doodlebug, who I met through Last.fm. She is lucky enough to be receiving Common at a festival in her native Poland, but asked for a playlist so she could be more familiar. In celebration of him having his first #1 album, I thought I would include my personalized liner notes. I really have too much time on my hands.
1) "I Used To Love H.E.R." (Resurrection) - Before he got all big with his more romantic offerings and Kanye productions, this was Common's most popular song. It still is regarded as one of the best hip-hop singles in history. This song came out in 1994 and is basically an opus over his love affair with hip-hop music. The laments he made about its state at that point actually ruffled a few feathers. Because of some misinterpretation he ended up in a beef with Ice Cube. It's a touchpoint for his career and he references the song in a couple of the other choices in this playlist
2) In My Own World (Check the Method) (Resurrection) - Resurrection didn't produce hits other than "H.E.R." It was mostly just a great cohesive album, maybe still his best. It served as justification for all the hype he received after he was mentioned in the Unsigned Hype column of the Source magazine, which at that point was a big deal. Biggie was also in that column. Common is probably the 2nd most popular name to come out of it. This track features No I.D. on the first verse and that was his producer for the first three albums and he was pretty decent by underground standards. You might recognize the sample cause Kanye references it in his first verse of "Jesus Walks"
3) Maintaining (Resurrection) - One of my favorites. I could have chose "Thisisme" but this one is more playful and we don't always have to be somber. Amazing wordplay . Just a young guy having fun.
4) De La Soul ft. Common - The Bizness - This was probably my first introduction to him because I got into De la due to the Tribe Called Quest. You can tell the whole song is just an exercise in emceeing but Common kind of steals the show just cause of his cadence and punchlines. This is one of the songs where he references #1: "I used to love her, but now I bone her"
5) Retrospective For Life ft. Lauryn Hill (One Day It'll All Make Sense) - This is a great album and randomly enough someone actually went through the trouble of making an alternative playlist for the album on a forum I was on years back. And the alternate playlist does make the album better. But this was his ploy to move off the momentum of Resurrrection. So he signed up Lauryn who was still in her Fugees days and still in the highest esteem. It's an excellent track that's a message to the child he aborted, based on a Stevie Wonder sample that Lauryn copped. Didi. Lauryn produced it as well.
6) Blackstar ft. Common - Respiration - You could not be a fan of underground hip-hop in the late 90s and not at least know this song, if not love it. Off of Blackstar's only album, this is a clinic in emceeing. Mos Def, Kweli, and Common all do their darndest with the city as the backdrop of their rhymes.
7) The Roots ft. Common - Act Too (Love Of My Life) - This is a track off the Roots breakthrough album Things Fall Apart. This serves as an unofficial sequel to "H.E.R ." where Common gives an update on the state of affairs he described in the original. The difference is that his skill has gotten better since this came out five years later. Also, he makes reference to those he takes issue with, but still in a respectful way. To dissect the many references he makes in the rhyme, to himself and others, could take another e-mail. But it just shows his versatility and creativity.
8) Common ft. Sadat X - 1-9-9-9 - This is the third of four straight songs of his free agent period. The Lauryn collabo did not bring in the sales his record company had hoped for and they severed ties. He made this song and it became an underground hit. Everyone thought he had signed to Rawkus, who released the single, and it made sense cause then Rawkus' phoenix was rising. It turned out it was just the lead single to their Soundbombing II compilation, a classic in its own right. But over the Hi-Tek track, we get more of the introspective and amazingly poetic Common. The metaphors and similes are in full display on this track. "Hold the mic like a memory"
9) Pharoahe Monch ft. Common & Talib Kweli - The Truth - The last of the free agent tracks before his own album on MCA. This was also a Rawkus release, part of a year long period that included the Soundbombing II compilation, Mos Def's first solo album, and Reflection Eternal (Talib Kweli & Hi-Tek). Another introspective clinic this time based on their interpretations of the truth. On his verse, Common meditates on his own struggles, a lot based in religion. And he does it all so well jumping from word to word.
10) The Sixth Sense ft. Bilal (Like Water For Chocolate) - The first single from his major label debut. This is one of 3 tracks that Bilal appears on and the beginning of a reciprocity that continues to his latest release. Common also loves to have live singers for his hooks and on this album alone Bilal, Jill Scott, D'Angelo, and Cee-Lo appear. Since then he's had Erykah Badu, Mary J. Blige, John Mayer, Macy Gray, Mya, John Legend, and even Lily Allen. This is the only track on the album that is not produced by the Soulquarian collective which included ?uestlove, D'Angelo, keyboardist James Poyser, and most importantly Jay Dee. Jay Dee carries most of the album but this DJ Premier track was a good choice to be a single for a breakthrough. It was a hard charging Common still being real but the beat was the most conventionally acceptable since Premier is respected in underground and commercial circles. I mean he has done Christina Aguilera. By the end you are agreeing with whatever he's saying because the mix of lyrics, beat, and Bilal's voice rouses something in your spirit.
11) The Light (Like Water For Chocolate) - This is his most soulful album and this song is the perfect example. As I said Jay Dee carried most of the album and this might be his legacy. The song is so deep that I wrote a whole blog about it. Simply put, he freaked an amazing Bobby Caldwell song and made the official b-boy love letter song. This might be the official hip-hop love anthem.
12) The Questions ft. Mos Def (Like Water For Chocoate) - Often derided in the reviews, I think a lot of people over-thought this track. Common and Mos Def don't display lyrical gymnastics, but just simply ask silly and introspective questions in rhyme form. I mean "Why do I need ID to get ID/If I had ID I wouldn't need ID" aren't going down as their strongest ever but wasn't rap started with rhymes about running out and getting Kaopectate after a bad meal? Relax a little.
13) Bilal ft. Mos Def & Common - Reminisce - Here is the reciprocity I was talking about. Jay Dee helms this beat as well as the three artists take their turns reminiscing about some love now gone. Common always manages to share something about himself even when he is at his most clever. His character comes through somehow even as he tells a pretty coherent story
14) Common ft. Jill Scott - 8 Minutes To Sunrise - Another narrative song, this time more in line with its inclusion on the Wild Wild West soundtrack. Common puts down a lyrical storyboard. It might have been a more enjoyable experience than the movie. Yeah it is actually.
15) Common - Tekzilla - By now, he was known. had gone gold based largely on "The Light" which became a love anthem for the bohemian set. But the hard driving Common never disappears and he scratches his underground itch on this track. This track was originally intended for Hi-Tek's first solo offering but they never cleared the sample. It was replaced by the decent "The Sun God" which features Common and Vinia Mojica. But I would take the imposing Common found on this record over the brightness found on the "Sun." Another narrative, this time with no hook, as he drops an unending string of bars. The other itch he scratches is one that has confused some writers. This song involves Common getting violent kind of like "Sunrise." Like Water For ChocolateSense and Like Water both include tracks where Common is out getting himself in scuffles, though each case seems like an act of self defense and/or honor/
16) Come Close (Electric Circus) - This was the single where Common seemed to be pandering to commercialism the most. The hook is sung by labelmate Mary J. Blige. The Neptunes helmed the beat, in their rise to their temporary dominance of the charts. It is obviously an attempt to replicate the success of "The Light" but its so obvious it received a backlash. The whole album is an experiment. Prince and P.O.D. are among the guests. It did not do that well. But this song on its own merits isn't half bad. You just can't judge it against its past.
17) I Am Music ft. Jill Scott (Electric Circus) - A Jay Dee helmed beat that provides a festive atmosphere for Commons personification of music. Really just an appreciative track but Common uses his allegorical powers to the fullest. It's a fun track.
18) Common ft. Erykah Badu, Pharrell, & Q-Tip - Come Close (Jay Dee Remix) - A proper sequel to "The Light" since this one actually features a Jay Dee beat like the original. Pharrell shifts from the producer's chair to the mic and doesn't do too badly. His aspirations were more under the radar then. But the beat bumps. Common sounds more comfortable and charming.
19) Erykah Badu ft. Common - Love of My Life (An Ode to Hip-Hop) - This might be the end of the "H.E.R." suite. Off the soundtrack for the movie Brown Sugar, his verse sounds like he's come to peace with hip-hop, a restless item he loves but will never match his ideals. It sounds like true love, recognizing the inherent deficiencies but appreciating the total package more fully. From "I used to.." to "Love of my life." Yeah I know it's not that deep.
20) Kanye West ft. Talib Kweli & Common - Get Em High - Will this single be the official beginning of Common's Kanye period when we look back historically. Most likely. He has the last position, but in track relays your strongest runner goes last. Common steals it.
21) The Corner (BE) - The love song as single, or at least the first one, was history. This album marked the changed. Jay Dee was now limited to two songs. Kanye took over the rest. And Common does well. He sounds his most fresh throughout the rest. And though the lyrics are still there, a little something is missing. The hunger and frenzy of his youth is diminished. But it's still phenomenal music cause he makes up for it with how much he has garnered over that span.
22) Go (BE) - With maturity, the love song moves down its natural progression. On Electric Circus the Prince & Cee-Lo collabo is more sexual in nature. With "Go", he calls on John Mayer to give him the version with allusions for the aware and clean enough for the radio.
23) Testify (BE) - The narrative that has been established firmly in his artillery, now updated Kanye style. I think this is the one song that surprised me the most. Kanye does an amazing beat and in the shortest period we hear a full story that was a pretty captivating video. Hell it could have been a movie. You always wish that he extrapolated the story cause its so short. But its probably perfect as is.
24) The People ft. Dwele (Finding Forever) - This is the first album where Jay Dee has not been alive. He still finds a production on here but it was something that was pieced together, a lot after he died. Kanye though, has reverence for Jay Dee and in interviews said that he tried to produce this album with his spirit. This track, down to the inclusion of Dilla fave Dwele, is the closest approximation someone could have come up with originally. It is really an amazing song and once again the get up and go Common that everybody loves.
25) The Game (Finding Forever) - Kanye does a more brooding track here and Common trades the light introspection with a hint of passion on this track. It sounds reminiscent of a 80s hip-hop track, like Run DMC or Schooly D would rock. The whole 80s thing kind of makes sense looking at how Kanye might be trying to bring back New Wave singlehandedly. It's a hot track though.
Bonus Track - A Tribe Called Quest ft. Common - The Remedy - This is from the Get On The Bus Soundtrack, a movie based on the Million Man March. Since it was such a black empowerment affair, the music buys into that spirit. Common gets his most passionate when he's talking about his family, his hometown, and his people. When I got his autograph, a white kid went in front of me. The white kid got a quick handshake and a signature. I got a more elaborate handshake, where he clasped my hand and my signature also had a two word message. I think he's accepted white people listen to him and he's even cool with them. But he's all about the black stuff. This is some of his manifesto.