Cruising 35,000 feet over some stretch of land between Syracuse, New York and Chicago, Illinois, I feel it would be remiss of me not to explore a Chicago local’s work as I speed in a metal bird towards the second city of the Bulls, the Bears and so much of today’s American hip-hop scene. While I try to keep abreast of all the goings on in the world of US hip-hop, my general distance from the country limits the extent to which I can have really precise knowledge of the flows of talent, money and tours across the country. A tweet from a music manager in New York last week caught my attention, though. He decried the focus on Chicago as a Midwest rap powerhouse, suggesting that the concentration of Chi town was robbing many other artists outside the city of their fair share of the limelight. Doing some empirical research this weekend, I look forward to reporting back on the accuracy of that statement. Still, there is no doubting that Chicago, also home of Kanye, Lupe, Rhymefest, Chief Keef and Twista, has been a hub for talent in the past.
Exactly how Common (previously Common Sense) now fits into the rich fabric of hip-hop that covers Chicago from the famed South Side to its northerly tip is harder to say. That the rapper, whose debut (92) and sophomore record ‘Resurrection’, released in 1994 established his name as synonymous with the emerging Chicago scene, is still a favoured son goes without saying. In almost every album he has released since, the streets, suburbs and city of Chicago has featured as a lyrical motif. Whether Common remains relevant in his hometown and beyond, touching 40 and perhaps now more known for star turns in ‘Smokin Aces’ (alongside Alicia Keys) and ‘American Gangster’, is not readily discernible. While his most recent studio albums (perhaps with the exception of last year’s ‘The Dreamer/The Believer’ have gone over well with the public and been marginal chart successes, Common confronts an even more serious case of the Nasir Joneses than Nas does himself. Where ‘Illmatic’ is widely considered one of the finest rap albums of all time, Common’s ‘Resurrection’ doesn’t quite qualify for that stratum of praise. Moreover, Common, like Nas, has been swinging ever since but has been so far unable to reach the heights of his debut.
‘Drivin’ Me Wild’ is prototypical contemporary Common. I really like it. With Lily Allen (a star who has otherwise withdrawn from the world stage after her own, stellar debut) at the helm, ‘Drivin’ Me Wild’ floats along on her vocals, occasionally pitch-adjusted to typically Chicagoan chipmunk level, and really benefits from the awesome contrast between Lily’s conversational British-accented vocals and Common’s sometimes laboured, but evocative storytelling. If Common is not the most technically proficient of rappers, his dedication to the art form makes up for it. Using the three-verse structure of the song to introduce guy, girl and finally, chart the demise of their relationship, Common reverts to a songwriting standard long since passed over as passé. With any other rapper, this traditionalism and move towards drawing generalisms from a fictional romantic tale would come off kitschy. We’re invested in the guy, the girl and effected by their ‘Bobby and Whit’-style downfall because Common is. Self-assuredness is half the battle with hip-hop and Common knows he wants to do rap well. ‘Drivin’ Me Wild’ isn’t perfect, but it’s proof that persistence pays dividends.
Common – Drivin’ Me Wild Ft. Lily Allen