When Common released his first album, 1992’s Can I Borrow A Dollar, he was a scrappy kid from Chicago that helped put the city on hip-hop’s radar. Almost two decades later, he’s become a staple of the music industry, and a bona fide icon, having released eight studio albums and become a successful television and film actor. We sat down with Common at the Los Angeles press day for Happy Feet 2, in which he played a hip-hop-quoting penguin named Seymour. In addition to talking about exploring the various permutations of his career, he offered some insights into the process of putting together his upcoming release, The Dreamer, The Believer.
How do you balance acting with music, focusing on taking more ambitious roles while still staying focused when you’re recording new material?
I was blessed and fortunate enough when I was recording my new album, “The Dream of the Believer,” to have some space. There was no film projects that really needed me to be there; basically, I wasn’t doing any film projects, and there was nothing out there that I was like, “I’ve got to go do this,” so I was able to focus on the album. But when I do a film or a television project like “Hell on Wheels,” I have to be focused on that; it’s hard to write a song when I’m in the world of that character. So more or less, things worked out in divine order, because along with the film, along with “Happy Feet 2” coming out around this time, I had the book that I released come out, “One Day It Will All Make Sense.” That came out in September, and the album is coming out in December, and the single is out now, so it’s all different. “Hell on Wheels” just premiered. So it’s like all of these things just aligned really well for the release.
How carefully do you plan your growth or evolution as an artist? Each of your albums sounds very different than the last one – are you watching what’s happening in music at the time, or just following what you’re interested in?
You know what? It goes on whatever I’ve been influenced by. Like, if I’ve been around some great music, like rock, you’ll hear a rock influence in my music. Or if I’ve been around in Europe doing shows and performing and going to the clubs, you’ll hear music like “U.M.C.” And at the time I made “U.M.C.,” the sound wasn’t as popular as it is now, so it was really cool for me because I felt like I was doing something that was unique to me but was truly inspired by what I was influenced by. So I really just try to give where I am at that time and what my tastes are, and of course I want to be unique, but sometimes, just being unique is just being yourself. Because there’s only one you in the world, so if you really know that voice, then that’s how you’ll be unique and creative.
You did “Be” with Kanye West and then followed that up with “Finding Forever.” When and how do you decide to stick with one person, and then to move on to collaborate with someone else?
With “U.M.C.,” it was more like, “I’m going to try something different,” and then Kanye was also doing other work, so it was like, I’m going to try some other different things. And when things started rolling, I just go with it, and not say, “man, I’ve got to have eight Kanye tracks and four Pharrell tracks,” it’s just like however it rolls. Just like this new album with No I.D., I didn’t plan for No I.D. to do half of it, but he ended up doing the whole album, and it was like, this is okay and it flows, and if it flowed right, let’s go. It’s basically about the flow of everything, and the creative process – just how it feels.
How would you characterize the sound of your new album, since you’ve worked with No I.D. in the past?
This new album is hip-hop music that really is made up of great songs, meaning you have the essence of what great hip-hop is, and what hip-hop is rooted in, but it’s like the material feels fresh and new because there’s a new sound to it, and new thoughts. It’s song-making, and there was a time when No I.D. and myself would do a song and it was just be a scratch and a hook, and that’s what hip-hop was at that time, and we hadn’t grown as songwriters yet or grown as visionaries of music enough to say, hey, we’re going to put this melody here. I mean, we did it kind of naturally, but now there’s thought to it also, and we have collaborated with great songwriters, so this music is just really pure, good music.
Do you feel like hip-hop has the same great variety of performers that it did when you started?
I think there’s room for all of it. Because, at the end of the day, Lil’ Wayne and Drake, they make great songs, and they can rhyme; like, Lil’ Wayne can be saying some really clever lines that you’ll be like, “damn – he said that?” I think one of the best lines ever in hip-hop is “real g’s move in silence like lasagna;” I wish I had thought of that – that’s a great line. So you’ve got to acknowledge when there’s talent, and there’s talented guys making music, so I just give it up for that. But also, I obviously appreciate the Kanye, the Nas, the Jay-Zs who have another aspect of making music.