ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.
The artist known as Common isn't; in fact, he's pretty uncommon. He's a vivid rap storyteller with a love of soul music. He also has a strong moral conscience and a deep connection to the streets of Chicago. In a moment, we'll talk with one of Common's regular contributors, his father. First, reviewer Will Hermes says that Common has made the best hip-hop record this year.
WILL HERMES reporting:
Hip-hop came of age on the East Coast in the 1980s. But in the '90s, when the massive success of records like Dr. Dre's "The Chronic," it moved West for an extended adolescence known as gangsta rap. But hip-hop's creative centers are elsewhere these days: in the South, with acts like Outkast, and lately in the Midwest.
(Soundbite of "I Used To Love H.E.R.")
COMMON (Rapper): (Rapping) Sittin' on a bone wishing that I could do her eventually, if it was meant to be, then it would be because we related physically and mentally. And she was fun then. I'd be geeked when she come around.
HERMES: Common isn't a new artist. This track, "I Used To Love H.E.R.," is a hip-hop morality tale from a 1994 record called "Resurrection," made back when they young rapper was known as Common Sense. The son of a Chicago high school principal, Common has always been a musical educator and experimenter, and those qualities can make for records more admirable than addictive, like his last one, "Electric Circus," a rap CD with a 10-minute gospel space jam at the end. But with his latest disc, simply titled "Be," Common's making music that's equally admirable and addictive.
(Soundbite of song)
COMMON: (Rapping) ...streetlights and deep nights, cats trying to eat right, riding no-seat bikes, we work to bee heights, so they can keep sweet nights, they head and they feet right, desires the street life, cars that be tight. It's hard to breathe nights, days are thief-like, the beasts roam the streets, the police is Greek-like. Gang matters weak, we speak and believe hype. Banged in the streets and...
HERMES: A lot of the credit for the sound of "Be" goes to Kanye West, the Chicago producer-rapper who's won about every pop music award there is. Kanye used to challenge his Chicago pal to rap battles years ago. But as producer on Common's new CD, Kanye West's trademark sped-up vocal hooks give Common classic backdrops for his storytelling.
(Soundbite of "Faithful")
COMMON: (Rapping) I was roaming around. In my mind, it occurred, `What if God was a her? Would I treat her the same? Would I still be runnin' game on her? In what type of ways would I want her? Would I want her for her mind or her heavenly body? Couldn't be gettin' bogus with someone so godly? If I was with her, would I still be wanting my ex?' The lies, the greed, the weed, the sex, wouldn't be ashamed to give...
HERMES: It's tempting to think that records like Common's "Be" and Kanye West's "The College Dropout" represent a trend towards hip-hop that can be hugely successful without pimping cartoons of trigger-happy thugs and sex fiends. But even if Common's latest just reaches a modest audience, it still feels like year's best hip-hop record to me; fun and smart without ever getting preachy. And it's more proof that the folks on the left and the right coasts should maybe pay more attention to what's going on in middle America.
SIEGEL: That's our reviewer Will Hermes, who's a senior contributing writer for Spin magazine. He was talking about Common's latest CD, "Be," which is out now.