The Last Laugh
KANYE WEST was slept on by his peers and clowned by the media. But three Grammys later—hate it or love it—the underdog’s on top. With COMMON and JOHN LEGEND singing the college dropout’s praises, he’s ready to school any remaining skeptics. NOAH CALLAHAN-BEVER tunes in as West and his crew let the G.O.O.D. times roll.
Maybe it’s just paranoia, but these guys seem like they’re faking. It’s early as hell (for musicians and writers, at least)—10 a.m. in New York and 7 a.m. in Los Angeles—but Common and Kanye West are already talking to each other via cell phone. This is no breezy, “Hey, how ya doing’?” affair either. It’s an involved, emotional, late-night-dorm-room-cipher discourse about music.
Common (né Lonnie Rashid Lynn) is in the backseat of a taxi on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn en route to a session at Sony Studios. On the other end of the line is West, who has just woken up more than 2,000 miles away in the L.A. mini-mansion his soul-beat empire built. They’re been yammering for over half an hour. Subjects include the divinity of music, the power of their partnership, God’s hand in songwriting, and many other ethereal, abstract, and touchy-feely matters. This over-the-top earnestness, coupled with the uncanny timing of their call, has the Spidey-sense of the reporter seated next to Common tingling.
That Common disappeared somewhat mysteriously during breakfast (making a call outside the Park Slope restaurant) only to return moments before West rang him, was strange.
The way they respectfully slob each other (“No, your album is my inspiration”) is plausible, if predictable. The generality of topics they cover, things that should have been beaten to the ground after countless hours in the studio together, throws up red flags. But it’s the fact that Common keeps repeating out loud what West has just said to him, that really had this scribe thinking the whole thing is being staged. The saccharine-sweet Norman Rockwell picture they’re painting is too perfect.
Or maybe this journalist is just listening to too much Rockwell (Somebody is watching me. Seriously.). Or maybe he went into this with the preconceived notion that the timing of the partnership these two have forged—West, 28, signing Common, 33, to his newly branded G.O.O.D. (Getting Out Our Dreams) Music label and producing the lion’s share of Common’s newest album, BE—smells like it’s more a marriage of convenience than a match made in hip hop heaven.
* * *
Common and Kanye West have known each other for more than a decade back in Chicago, meeting in producer No I.D.’s basement. “Kanye would beg to give Common beats,” says No I.D., who mentored West from age 14 and produced the majority of Common’s first three LPs. “But Kanye made Puffy-style poppish beats, so Common would be like, ‘Nah, I ain’t messing with him. Don’t have him come around.’ Back then, Common didn’t want input. And, you know, Kanye is very ‘Let me help.’”
Common may have dismissed Kanye, but West wasn’t all that awestruck by Common’s talents either. “I used to love people like Wu-Tang Clan, Biggie, and Nas—people that sold records,” West recalls. “I liked Common okay, you know, since he was from Chicago, but I wanted to dress like Nas.” The two even battled in 1996, at the peak of Common’s popularity, on No I.D. and Twilite Tone’s WHPK radio show in Chicago, albeit in freestyle fun. “That was just Kanye trying to prove himself. And I was up there drunk, like, Just ‘cause I got a deal don’t think I’m not cold,” says Common. “But it was all fun.”
“He thought I was, like, a New York dickrider ‘cause I used to rap just like Raekwon and Nas,” says West. “But he knew that I had a spark lyrically, otherwise he wouldn’t have let me battle him.”
Nine years later, West has platinum plaques hanging on his walls and Grammys sitting on his mantle, and Common has teetered on the brink of obscurity—thanks to his bizarre last album, Electric Circus. And we’re to believe these guys are rap’s Tango & Cash, when it feels more like a tango for cash? Common certainly thinks so. “Not only do I love Kanye creatively and as a brother,” he says as his cab approaches the studio, “but we doing business with a vision.”
Maybe this cynical view isn’t fair. Perhaps Common and West really are the most earnest men in hip hop, musicians who love their music and just can’t stop talking about it. And really, would that be so hard to believe? The two Chicago natives, along with Ohio player John Legend, are making the most challenging hip hop and R&B on the charts. It’s consistently rich, nuanced, and thought provoking. And what’s most significant, thanks to West’s golden ear, they’re making it pop as well.
“I think that the three of us complement one another really well,” says John Legend, 26, who sang and played piano on multiple tracks for both West and Common. “With me as the singer and musician, Kanye as the singsongy rapper/producer with the overtly pop sensibility, and Common as, like, the old wise man.”
The chemistry shared by the trio is evident in each of their works. Legend’s Get Lifted, the first release off West’s G.O.O.D. Music label, was hailed a classic by this magazine. Common’s BE has received similar accolades and promises to vault him over the platinum hurdle for the first time in his modest career. Meanwhile, West has teamed with Fiona Apple producer Jon Brion for Late Registration, his anticipated follow-up to The College Dropout. With its layered arrangements and meticulous attention to songwriting, it’s evident (even in its early unmixed state) that West and Brion are crafting some of the most sophisticated, baroque hip hop ever. Considering himself as much a visual artists as an aural one (he did make three videos for “Jesus Walks,” after all), West says he’s planning an accompanying theatrical release of music videos from the LP to be directed by himself and Hype Williams, among others. West’s revolution will not simply be televised—it’ll be multiplexed.
* * *
“We just celebrating, that’s all,” says West, explaining his talkative MO. “You don’t wanna look back, like, Yo man, remember when the shit was shot? And we ain’t even say nothing out loud.” It’s one week since his and Common’s cellular lovefest, and he’s mixing BE’s “Chi City” at Larrabee Sound Studio outside Los Angeles. Suddenly, he excuses himself and playfully asks the room if he may allow himself “a Kanye West moment.” With both hands in the air, stretching the fabric of his choice leather jacket, he shouts over his own track, “I really am the hottest producer in the game!”
And that statement is really not so farfetched. Last year, West proved that hip hop could be successful without aiming for the lowest common denominator, and by doing so, he turned the bottom-feeding music industry on its head. With The College Dropout, he struck a balance between smart and savvy, infusing pop melodies to raw, chopped-sample hip hop; rapping about substantive things, like Jesus, and silly ones, like fat girls; and scoring a double-platinum plaque in the process.
The sober truth that makes Kanye’s self-aware joke funny, however, is that West’s bombastic declamations have often drowned out his music. To Kanye, his music is philanthropy, and we should thank him for his generous gifts. And he is a genius, but his need for acknowledgement at times undermines his brilliance. In interviews and even in songs (“Last Call” for example), he’s compelled to take apart all that he’s created so the public might recognize his painstaking ingenuity, like a magician who reveals the mechanics behind his illusions so the audience may fully appreciate his deft sleight of hand.
His preferred instrument of dissection is the outlandish analogy. Perhaps because he’s used to being misunderstood, or maybe because his mother is a professor, West can’t resist a good analogy. “For me, having people appreciate what I’ve done is like getting to the end of Street Fighter II, when, like, Ryu is walking into the sunset,” he says before citing an instance where you should appreciate his good work that much more because of the hardship he’s endured while making it for you. “Like with the ‘Corners’ video. We’re editing in L.A., but it’s Super Bowl weekend, and I got a show Thursday. So I fly out for that, then we fly to Florida. I fly back to L.A. Friday. Then I fly to a show Saturday. Then I’m editing Sunday morning back in L.A. just so people can say, ‘Yo, I like that Common video.’ Enjoy it and know who brought it to you.”
Pure as his desire may be, its crass expression has often made the recognition that he seeks only that much more elusive. The revivalist fervor with which he preaches the gospel of his own greatness—to heretics and true believers alike—has mired the world-be critical darling in a war of words with the very people who award those much-pined for accolades: the press.
“My whole thing with the media was that fans were, like, walking in at the end of an argument,” he says, again conjuring an analogy. “You know, like, if you step in an argument, domestic abuse, or something like that, and you hear ‘Fuck you, I fucked your friends. Your mama’s a bitch.’ And you see that, and you’re like, ‘Man, that person is wildin’.’ But you didn’t see the person smack the other just before you stepped into the room. It’s the don’t-argue-with-fools-‘cuase-from-a-distance-you-won’t-know-who-is-who thing. And by me wildin’ out, like when I said that artists should get paid to be on covers, the fans didn’t know who was who. But I’m not afraid to fight the press. Ask Mos Def. Ask Q-Tip. I’m like the ‘Pac for them.
“My biggest pet peeve with writers now is that they always paraphrase me and it takes away from my jokes,” West says. “Because I speak in jokes—I’m a comedian. That’s one of the main things people don’t understand.”
But there’s a lot more that people don’t comprehend, qualities that get trumped by West’s trumpet of self-adulation. Those close to him see a different side, a magnanimous side, especially when it comes to music. “I will forever be loyal to Kanye,” says Common, “because I was in between labels when we started BE, and he produced the whole thing before he ever got a check.”
“I don’t do music for money anymore,” says West, who has accrued a publishing catalog—with production for Jay-Z, Alicia Keys, and Ludacris among others—that should keep his grandkids in Polos and penny loafers. “I just work with people that I like. I actually lost money on The College Dropout because we shot so many videos. But I wanted to make a visual for each of those songs for the people to enjoy.”
Having finally received his propers, courtesy of the Grammy voting committee, plus growing a bit wider and older, the chip on his shoulder looks a lot less like a brick or a boulder.
“I can’t be mad at people for not recognizing,” West says in a fleeting moment of humility. “One of my main drawbacks is doing a lot of really good things at the same time—and knowing it. It makes people say, ‘We can’t give him Best Lyricist, Best New Artist, Best Producer, Best Video, Song of The Year, Album of the Year. Not Kanye. Fuck that nigga.’”
No one said the chip was gone, just smaller.
* * *
West isn’t the only member of the G.O.O.D. Music family whose career has been defined by the pursuit of praise. Like Captain Ahab chasing the whale, or Pepé Le Pew in search of that pussy, Common’s professional evolution has been a story of the relentless hunt for a classic album. His quest is fueled with twin desires—artistic recognition and commercial success—that are often at odds. And it is the juggling of these goals and that attempt to strike a balance, that have provided the drama.
The great tragedy of Common’s career, perhaps the defining event that set him on his journey, was that he once made a masterpiece—but critics and consumers overlooked his efforts. “It’s funny now ‘cause people come up to me and talk about how classic Resurrection was,” he says of his 1994 sophomore LP while sitting in a quiet vocal booth in Sony Studios. “But at the time, it was getting average reviews and nobody was really telling me it was special.”
But it was. As F. Scott Fitzgerald captured the ambivalent detachment of young adults in the 1920s with The Great Gatsby, Common’s Resurrection perfectly articulated the restless inertia of early twentysomthings in the 1990s: educated enough to have expectations and listless enough to watch them fade. Common’s apathetic vantage and dexterous wordplay, combined with No I.D.’s and Twilite Tone’s cold soul-jazz beats, yielded an indelible aural image of Chicago. At the instant hip hop was stepping into the mainstream for the first time, Common presented one of its last undiluted moments. He even seemed to recognize the fact and expressed the sentiment on “I Used To Love H.E.R.,” where he laments falling out of love with hip hop because this, his first love, had evolved into something he no longer recognized. While he correctly foresaw hip hop’s commercial transition, in retrospect, it’s ironic that Common mourned the state of hip hop in the year of Illmatic, Ready To Die, and Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik.
Haunted by Resurrection’s critical and commercial rebuff—and burdened by the challenge of topping its innate greatness—Common tried to recapture that moment on each of his subsequent albums, holding on to the hope that a new sound with the same quality would make more people pay attention. “I put expectations on myself after Resurrection,” says Common, who’d begun hanging out with the likes of Lauryn Hill. “I watched other artists get mass appeal, and I felt that creatively I was on their level, but I didn’t get that recognition. So I wanted that. But at the same time, I put pressure on myself to say things that matter.”
Consequently, he made a string of albums that missed the mark, each possessing moments of grandeur, but each failing in its own way to find the delicate equilibrium between art and commerce. His closest attempt was “The Light,” from 2000’s Like Water For Chocolate, a charming, meditative love song with a catchy Bobby Caldwell sample, which despite tepid reviews, drove the LP to gold status—a high-water mark for Common.
As he moved away from Resurrection’s sound, he also moved physically, relocating to Brooklyn in ’98 and choosing the production of ?uestlove and the Neptunes over that of his Chi-town homies No I.D. and Twilite Tone. The move alienated hometown fans and friends alike. “It wasn’t fair to Common,” says Twilite Tone, who reunited with him in ‘02 as his DJ on the Electric Circus Tour. “He never asked to put the whole city on his back, but people felt like he should be putting on other artists from Chicago or at least the people in his crew who had helped him get where he was.”
“I remember seeing a local cable TV show here,” says Panik of the Molemen, one of Chicago’s premier underground acts. “They made a parody commercial for people who turned their backs on Chicago hip hop, and they just showed Common’s face.”
“It was real hard on me, because people didn’t understand that I had to move to New York to continue my career,” says Common. “I had always wanted to be a great artist, but I never had the vision of having my own label.”
Feeling awkward at home, Common played the gingerbread man. “Before, I wasn’t working through those situations,” he admits, “like when I was with Erykah [Badu] and things weren’t going right in music, I would just dip down to Dallas and relax with my lady.”
Despite the hate, Common pushed forward artistically, shooting the moon on Electric Circus, hedging his hopes of Andre 3000-esque success. “Common approaches music from a safe place,” says No I.D. “He has too much integrity to chase sales, but he wants to sell records. He just doesn’t want it to look like he’s trying, so he’ll do Electric Circus, and, if it doesn’t work, he can always say, ‘I was creative.’”
Integrity is the ace Common keeps tucked in his cuff, knowing he can play it whenever credibility becomes a question. Perhaps it was necessary for him to fail on his own terms to free himself of the millstone of creating another milestone. “I remember sitting down with my mother and my manager and planning the future after Electric Circus,” he says. “But I could see a fear in them. That made me ask, Who am I? It made me go back home. Home is Chicago. Home is confronting the people who are mad at me. Home is working with Kanye. Home is making BE.”
* * *
As an artist, Common Sense [his former name] has always trekked with a destination in mind, but the destination in mind, but the personal evolution of Lonnie Rashid Lynn has been more peripatetic. Throughout Rashin’s journey as a man, he has sometimes seemed adrift, doing what feels right at the moment—in friendships, relationships, fatherhood, and most visibly, in fashion (crochet everything, baby!).
“I work with a lot of passion and heart towards being a good person,” he says. “But I still go through the struggles of being a man. You want to know one of the biggest lessons: You gotta love you. I’ve used alcohol to feel comfortable. I’ve used relationships to feel comfortable. But ultimately, you gotta love you to feel comfortable.”
Part of the process of learning to love himself involved learning to love someone else. “Erykah was the first woman I was in love with—who I didn’t cheat on. I thought I was going to be with her forever,” Common says of his two-year relationship with Badu, which began as a musical friendship (she was featured on his third album). “She was a catalyst for change, she pushed me to find myself. But I learned that I can’t look to anyone else for light, I need to shine regardless.”
Many felt Badu’s bohemian aesthetic blinded Common artistically, as evidenced by Electric Circus’s eclectic sound. “I ain’t gonna put Electric Circus on her,” he says. “But when I look back, I notice that while recording both Electric and One Day It’ll All Make Sense I was in relationships. That limits your accessibility to other people. And when I’m creating, my process is picking up information from other people, so I do think the relationship played a part.”
But one lady who doesn’t disrupt his creative flow is his 7-year-old daughter, Omoye. “I ain’t gonna sit and try to profess to the world that I’m, like, the greatest father,” he confesses. “But I am a loving father, and I put in the hard work to see her often because I know it’s important to her and to me. Being with her teaches me about myself. Like, she recently wrote a poem about some bad personal things going on between me and her mother, and it had both of us feeling really sad and seeing what we were doing.”
No one is happier to see Common unite with West than Omoye, who has rather grown taste in music to be only 7. “I saw her listening to The College Dropout,” he says, “And she said to me, ‘I like him ‘cause he’s different.’ I love that she can see that at such an early age.”
* * *
Through it may have taken Common a little longer than his daughter to accept West’s talent, he has certainly come around. Watching the two record BE’s “They Say” in Sony Studios, it’s clear that they have a mutual respect. Acutely aware of their union’s power, Common and West coach each other’s vocals and offer honest criticism, suggesting different inflections or breathing spots. With the understood goal of great music, the two work unflinchingly, without kid gloves or bruised egos.
“I told Common last time I saw him,” says No I.D., “As long as I’ve known you, you’ve never listened to anyone except your mother. But Kanye has your ear, and you should listen to him. He can teach you how to make hit records, and you can teach him how to make a classic album.”
Bent on achieving just that for himself, West, in a decidedly anti-megalomaniacal move, has humbled himself and holed up in an L.A. studio to record Late Registration, with Common’s occasional poetic guidance and the musical supervision of Jon Brion.
“Kanye is a great record man,” says Brion, the hip hop novice who says he was attracted to the thematic unity of West’s songwriting. “He has no fear in trying something new and pushing himself, but at the same time, he’s a ruthless editor who knows exactly what he wants.”
Their collaboration—in which Brion builds melodies with guitars, synths, live strings, and even a harpsichord around West’s loops and drum programming, and then arranges the music to move, as Brion says, “analogously” with the rhymes—pushes the musicality of hip hop to places it’s never been. “On The College Dropout, we had strings and choirs, which was groundbreaking for hip hop,” says West. “But I fell short of the actual Fiona Apple or Portishead sound that I was going after. So I went and got someone who could take me there, and Jon Brion did.”
Sitting on a low stool in the ultrasilence of a soundproofed live-room studio in Hollywood, West has his back to the door. He’s literally looking up to Brion, who is perched on a taller stool, talking with his hands and tuning a guitar. They’re among vintage keyboards and a conspicuous piece of paper with side-by-side track listings in West’s chicken scratch (so that he can be sure that his LP hangs song-for-song with Common’s, West confessed later).
For 45 minutes, Brion goes on about his definition of genius as exemplified by Gandhi’s and Martin Luther King Jr.’s use of analogy to fight social justice and the direction of West’s songwriting (hint: you may hear some analogies). “We talk like this every day,” says West after the building session. “We talk music theory or songwriting, or we’ll just listen to a Jackson 5 record all the way through, paying attention to the arrangements. And I apply that knowledge to what I’m working on, whether it’s my album with Jon Brion, Common’s album, or John Legend’s album.”
And, having witnessed the meandering passion of this genuine exchange and the total absence of panegyric lust, it ceases to matter whether West’s early morning phone call with Common was phony. Regardless of the skepticism their unnervingly wholesome collaboration may inspire, West, Common, and Legend are absolutely sincere. “We just love this hip hop music we’re creating. It really feels divine.” And that’s just how it sounds. Believe it or not.