It’s an indisputable fact that rapper/actor Common is one of the most highly respected elder statesmen in hip-hop. After he debuted back in 1992 with his first album, Can I Borrow a Dollar, it has been quite the journey for the Chicago native.
Last night, the rapper shared some of that journey at the State Theatre as the headlining artist at this year’s Tri-C Jazzfest. You can see a slideshow of photos from the concert here.
Common emerged onto the stage in darkness, but his recognizable silhouette garnered cheers from the eager crowd. A portion of Nat King Cole’s “Nature Boy” played and set the course for what was to come. In addition to the rapper himself, there was also a full band, a DJ and backup vocalist filling out the stage. The first two songs were “I Used to Love H.E.R.” and “Love of My Life” — two standards in the emcee’s catalogue, without question.
Common told the story of how he fell in love with hip-hop at age 12 and recording with his cousin from Cincinnati and then performed the first song he made. He went on to say that when he was younger he compared himself to Michael Jordan and even jokingly apologized for what Jordan did to the Cavaliers in the ’80s.
Common’s daughter’s ultrasound heartbeat provided the perfect segue into the Lauryn Hill-featuring “Retrospect For Life.” He began to tell the story of how he relocated from Chicago to New York and just became spellbound by the city before performing Black Star’s “Respiration.” Common went on to explain how he would take the train to Philadelphia to connect with Black Thought of the Roots and how he introduced him to sounds he’d never heard before, like the work of Fela Kuti. The reference led into the opening track from Common’s Like Water for Chocolate album, “Time Travelin’ (A Tribute to Fela).”
“Nag Champa (Afrodisiac For The World)” followed and after reminiscing about legendary producer J. Dilla, he joked that at that time women in headwraps were his aphrodisiac and suggested that maybe he was in love, alluding to his relationship with Erykah Badu and also leading into “Punch Drunk Love” from his Universal Mind Control album.
Common invited a woman from the crowd to come onto stage to sing with him but he ended up freestyling some rhymes and namechecking several notable natives, streets, and locations in Cleveland — respectively Halle Berry, Bone Thugs-n-Harmony, St. Clair Ave. and Hot Sauce Williams. He went on to say that he hopes LeBron James stays in Cleveland and even finds the space to criticize President Trump.
They two shared a dance during “Come Close” before the emcee went into “The Light.” Common explained the thought process that he had when he was creating his Electric Circus album before performing “Aquarius.” The album recieved generally positive reviews from critics but did not perform well commercially.
The crowd’s energy seemed to increase with “The Corner” and “The People.”
While talking the audience, Common said he could easily harp on all the bad things that are going on in the world, but he’d rather focus on the positive aspects and without saying any names declares that the world would be better off with the leadership of women before performing “The Day Women Took Over.”
Continuing with the serious portion of the show, Common dedicated “Black Maybe” to the memory of Tamir Rice, Alton Sterling, Sandra Bland and countless others who lost their lives at the hands of law enforcement over the years.
The show began to head for the home stretch, but not before swinging back to the upbeat side with “Testify” and “Go.” The former featured a mash-up with Prince’s “Darling Nikki” and Common went out into the crowd on the latter. He mentioned that we all have the power to make a change in the world in some way. His father, the late Lonnie Lynn Sr., appears on “It’s Your World” and during the performance, the lights and audio both faded out and back in as Common continued to rap.
The 90-minute set ended with Common and John Legend’s Oscar-winning song “Glory.” The rapper added that he met with civil rights activist Andrew Young on the set of Selma, and he offered the advice of once you find something you would die for, you should live for that.
Common has been credited with saying that hip-hop is the child of jazz culture, so it seemed like a natural progression for him to perform at a jazz festival. The band was on point, and the female vocalist did an excellent job when the spotlight was on her as well. The show itself was a roller coaster trip down memory lane for some and perhaps an introduction to some of Common’s music for others, but it all made sense.
Minneapolis-born New York-based singer José James, who performed songs from his Lean On Me: José James Celebrates Bill Withers project, opened the show. His set culminated with perhaps Withers’ two most popular songs — “Just the Two of Us” and “Lovely Day.” The former featured a lengthy guitar solo, and James’ rendition of the latter inspired some to get up and dance.
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