Common, 2014

Common photographed by Dustin Aksland on July 18, 2014 at the Skylark in New York.

Dustin Aksland

It's been twenty years since Common's sophomore LP, Resurrection, shook up the rap industry and gave hip-hop fans the classic ode "I Used to Love H.E.R." The rapper/actor hasn't slowed down since. Last week, via producer and Def Jam Executive Vice President No I.D.'s ARTium Records imprint, the Chicago native dropped his tenth studio LP, Nobody's Smiling.

Common & No I.D. Photo Gallery: The Making of 'Nobody's Smiling' & 'Resurrection'

The project has been celebrated and earmarked as a return to form, one of Com's best albums in many years. Ahead of its release, we caught up with him for an interview.

This year is the twentieth anniversary of your 1994 LP Resurrection. Was that something you were cognizant of going in to work on Nobody's Smiling?
Going into this album what was on our minds was making something fresh-sounding. So it wasn't like we were dwelling on Resurrection or even thinking about it. Once this year came around and they started talking about '94 hip-hop and Resurrection, it fell into place organically. But this is a new sound for a Common album. I'm not trying to relate everything back to what we did because I'm a person that believes in living in the present. People don't remember, so I never try to live off of what I've done in the past.

Still, it's interesting to talk about Resurrection now because so much of the conversation around Chicago these days is about street stuff. In the "Resurrection" video, you were really out there, paying homage to that. People don't really know that side of you.
I grew up on the South Side of Chicago. My mother was a teacher, and she was a really strong independent woman, and eventually [I had] a stepfather. I didn't grow up, like, poor. But I grew up in the hood because like, you're in the neighborhood. You're on the South Side, you're in the neighborhood. You're around 87th street, you're in the neighborhood. It was gang-banging, it was drugs, it was broken homes. I come from that. I could have went down a different road. But I always wanted to be something in life. I didn't know what it was, but I knew I wanted to be something.

And now, look, you're a real thespian. You can do the 'gutter shit' and the 'other shit.'
I think the artist that is maybe able to relate to the gutter shit, and speak about the gutter shit, but understands the other shit and maybe understands the other shit too, is actually to me not only the most celebrated, but most valued artist. Think about Tupac. He was an actor; and a real dude. He had been through some stuff. He was a revolutionary but he also was a dude that was like, 'Yo, I'll beat your ass too.' There's something very powerful about being able to relate to the street, but still be able to do some high art.

J. Dilla, The Roots, Kanye West, DJ Premier, The Neptunes, will.i.am and now No I.D again on this LP. You've basically worked with every major hip-hop producer.
Well, everyone except Dr. Dre and Timbaland. You definitely take the lessons you learned from all of them. With No I.D., I learned about actually making music, because he was a musician. He kind of reminds you of what we're doing this for, the purpose. His agenda is the culture of hip-hop, staying true and improving it. Like, the conversations we have -- wherever they come up -- it's always a reminder. Like, "Hey man, we know the radio is this, we know you been to the White House. That's cool. But you're a hip-hop dude and this is what we do this for."

J. Dilla was so true to the music that he didn't care if it was like, Jay-Z. If he wanna do beats for you, he will. If he don't, he don't. He would just make music constantly. He actually was the first person I saw that had that combination of artsy and ghetto. Not artsy where you're like, trying to be artsy. But he was sampling jazz music, then going to a strip club. He come in with a chain on to pick me up in an Escalade, but is bumping Daft Punk. He was the merging of two worlds.

You've released LPs before where the labels didn't seem like they were really behind you. Now you're on No I.D.'s label ARTium Records. He's also the album's producer. How does that make things different?
It's still a business. He's an executive at a company. He has to wear different hats. I'm on his label but he still has a responsibility to Def Jam. But before, you did look at the label like, "Oh, they're on the other side." So to have someone that is inside, you just have more information. You also have a way of reasoning that is intelligent. We handle business better now. You have someone who knows the inner workings of a record label who can say, "Hey, let's be smart with this. For your sake. Not just for the label."

How did the deal materialize?
It evolved. We were just making the music. I wasn't even signed. I didn't know where it should fit. In some ways, I feel like I haven't been a part of the music industry. I haven't really been it. I always knew I wanted to be on ARTium, but I didn't know where it was gonna be. No I.D. literally showed up. It was my birthday [in March] and he was like, "Look, I got a contract for you." It was like a birthday present. I was like, "Oh, shit!"

Did you have to go off and shoot movies during the recording of this LP?
One thing I did, and I have to acknowledge is, I was focused. I didn't do any films. I had one little quick snippet of a film, but we focused. I wouldn't take any films. I was knocking out songs, and I was writing faster than I usually do. And, I don't think there was one beat that took more than 10-15 minutes. We'd be going through loops, and he'd be like, "Oh, take that" and then I'd go write.

Hip-hop is very competitive. Did you think about that at all going in to writing? Like, to try to prove you can still hang?
I feel that way with anyone I'm rapping with -- I want to be the best. But funny enough, I think I got to a point in the process of making this album where I was like, "Man, what do I have to prove?" I want to make some great music and be dope; and dope is sometimes just having fun and not over-thinking it.