When you think about “Chicago rap” in 2014, Chief Keef, Fredo Santana, Lil Bibby, Katie Got Bandz, and other drill rappers may pop into your head. Internet sensation Chance the Rapper might be the loudest and most unique voice from the Windy City, with his hazy lyricism drifting above the murderous mumblings of his peers. The vintage Chicago hip hop sound which birthed Chance – soulful, poetic and a little jazzy – has stayed with veteran rapper Common more than any of his contemporaries. As Lupe got political and Yeezy turned God Level, Common has made a choice to embrace, not abandon, the elements that elevated Chicago rap into the national conversation.
To celebrate the release of his new album Nobody’s Smiling Gramercy Theater in New York City, he debuted new album cuts and broke out the classics to a packed-in crowd of incredibly diverse ages. The was only just enough room for fans to lift their arms to clap along as Common spit flawless and clear verses to fanboy favorites “Get Em High,” “Testify” and “Used to Love HER.” All the while, Common kept the crowd’s energy up. He bounced around the stage, moving like a point guard between his two DJ’s – DJ Dummy and DJ Twilight Tone- dribbling his rhymes in circles with the easy swagger of a natural talent.
Songs from the new album focus on beats, collaboration, and wordplay. Each track from the newly released album features longtime collaborator No I.D. on production, and has features from Big Sean, Jhene Aiko, Dreezy, Vince Staples and Lil Herb – all of which showcase the diversity of the Midwest sound. The new song “Diamonds” hit the hardest, with the crowd singing along to the hook in Big Sean’s absence. While many of them were too young to pop champagne as the lyrics directed, but that didn’t stop them from getting wild to the conscious turn-up anthem.
“Speak my Piece,” which samples Biggie, was another crowd pleaser. The Brooklyn anthem gave DJ Dummy a moment to shine. His scratching was impressive and highly stylized, flawless turning a single iconic line into a 2 minute showcase of his finely honed skills.
The most interesting moment of the show was an extended tribute to the late J-Dilla. Common’s acting chop were on full display as he broke up the new song “Rewind That” with skits showcasing his life changing conversations with Dilla. The most poignant moment was the literal interpretation of a line:
One day J brought me this TV stand
It was a gift so I couldn’t refuse it
It came from his heart, I regret I didn’t use it….
I know you’re still shining, from heaven you watch me
Watch me put this Grammy on the stand you got me
Common showed the stand in the spotlight, then pulled out a Grammy to set on an empty spot. It was a powerful tribute to an epic talent, and everyone in the crowd understood the impact and influence of Dilla, which spawned hits around the world.
Before Common left the stage, he took a moment to thank Def Jam, calling out around 14 people by name. He noted it was an “honor” and that they “treat him right.” It’s rare to see a rapper be so kind to his label, but if anyone can, it’s the humble and down-to-earth Common. After the label thank-you’s had been done, he went on to thank the lighting person and the sound mixer. “Shout out to Marty on the soundboard.”
After an hour-plus set, the crowd wanted more. They changed “Common, Common” until he returned to stage, and performed “Go”. It was by far the biggest moment of the night, with everyone singing along to the Kanye hook. Even VIP was standing and dancing by the end, joining the younger mob in the full experience of a hip hop show.
Common gave a performance – he didn’t just rap. He didn’t smoke, crowd surf, throw water bottles, or insight a moshpit. He delivered clear, classic songs and heartfelt messages to his devoted fans, speaking on topics ranging from police violence to appreciating your friends before it’s too late. He left us joyful, energized, and a little bit more thoughtful. And that’s exactly what “hip hop” should do.