Common was in New Zealand working on his seventh LP, Finding Forever, when Kanye West, the project’s main producer, introduced him to the music of British ”It Girl” Lily Allen. ”Kanye started thinking of this hook,” Common recalls. ”He was like, ‘You know who would sound good for this? Lily Allen.’ I’m like, ‘Aight.’ I wasn’t up on Lily Allen — I ain’t gonna front!” But after giving her acclaimed debut, Alright, Still, a few spins, the Chicago rapper/actor wasted no time in inviting her to L.A. to appear on his track ”Drivin’ Me Wild.” The freewheeling jam — featuring smart musings sung by both Allen (”Love’s not a mystery, it’s everything”) and Common (”Relationships can be dead but look live to us”) — was a standout among the tunes he previewed for EW in an NYC studio on April 7. (”Wild” is being considered for release as a single after Forever hits shelves on July 10). ”I just love her — the way she carries herself, the confidence, and [her] whole style,” Common says of Allen. EW.com sat down with Common while he got a quick in-studio haircut and shared more of his thoughts on acting, activism, and making music that can last Forever.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How does it feel to be at the peak of your success now, a full 15 years after your first album, Can I Borrow A Dollar?, came out?
COMMON: Man, it feels great! It feels like [2005’s] Be was my first album. Some people still think that, it’s funny. I remember one day [in high school] my science teacher said to me in front of the whole class, ”Yeah, Lonnie” — that’s my first name — ”he’s a late developer.” ‘Cause I was still real small and young-looking. I was just like, ”What?” So maybe I just developed later [as an artist]. I’m not saying that the material I did before wasn’t nothing, but it’s just constant growth, and the growth is starting to get attention now. That’s a beautiful thing.
Along with Be, this makes two albums in a row where you’ve worked closely with Kanye. What makes him a good musical partner?
First of all, he’s just very much genius at what he does. His soul and passion and what he puts into it is unprecedented. And though we might have different tastes in certain things, he’s somebody I trust that can open me up to new things — and I listen. I used to not listen, man. It wasn’t the producer’s fault all the time, it was me! But [when] he asks me to rewrite some stuff ’cause he thinks it could be better, I’m listening.
In 1994, you famously aired your concerns about the direction of mainstream hip-hop with the song ”I Used to Love H.E.R.” What do you think about the state of the art today?
You know, I really don’t think about hip-hop, like, saying, ”Man, where is the music at right now?” I just strive to create what I want to hear, and I listen to what I want to listen to, and try not to be even judging it anymore. Hip-hop is gonna be hip-hop. It’s always changing, always evolving. I listen to the stuff that is really fresh to me, that I can enjoy from whatever perspective. That could be anything from a Kanye song to a Nas song to a Lil Wayne freestyle to a Lily Allen song, which ain’t particularly hip-hop.
You made your big-screen acting debut in Smokin’ Aces a few months ago, and you have American Gangster coming out this fall. You play T.I.’s character’s dad in that one, right?
Yeah! [laughs] They had to age me a little bit, ’cause I ain’t that old. I just got into the mindset. More than anything, it was just an honor to be on the set with Denzel Washington and Ruby Dee and Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe. To be able to say I’m in this movie with them — it’s a big step for me, you know?
In Smokin’ Aces you played a mobster — not necessarily the kind of role that people expect from your music. What drew you to that project?
I love that character because he was far away from me and what people know of as Common. And he was a killer, but he had heart, he was intelligent. So it made me have to have layers. I knew people would be like, ”Damn, Common took on a role that’s definitely not him.” That’s acting. I don’t wanna be taking on roles where I’m playing a poet, unless they have a lot more substance to them.
I noticed that you namedropped Barack Obama in your new song ”The People.” And a few years ago on Jadakiss’ ”Why?” remix, you asked, ”Why is Bush acting like he trying to get Osama / Why don’t we impeach him and elect Obama?” I take it you still feel that way?
Yeah, definitely, man! I’m in full support of that brother. He has a great mind and I think he’s for the people, man. I think we need that. We need someone that’s thinking forward and thinking peaceful and thinking about people of all walks of life — not just the rich.
Are you thinking about doing any campaigning this election year?
Definitely. Before, I never believed in the system like that. And I still don’t feel like the system is correct, but I feel that we can make change in that way too. All it takes is to have people that we really feel are down for the people. That’s what I’m seeing, so I’m gonna be active.
You did those ”Peace, Love, Gap” ads last year. Are you planning on continuing to work with Gap?
I would love to do more. That was a good relationship, a good marriage. Some kids got familiar with who Common is through the Gap commercial, so it was a blessing. Those opportunities, man, you gotta take ’em and make the best music possible so people can hear what you’re about. People say, ”Yo, you’re an underground artist.” Yeah, that’s my mentality — I’m an underground revolutionary guy, but I want the world to hear that! I’m not just saying it for just the people in the underground. I need the other people to hear it too.