Published Dec 12, 2014Michael Brown. Eric Garner.
These are the names Common — a Hollywood rapper who still rhymes with a purpose — invoked before launching into "Kingdom," a selection from his terrifically dark new album, Nobody's Smiling. Out of the mouth of a lesser emcee, the dedication might have felt half-sincere, but Lonnie Rashid Lynn has been writing smartly about the people for 22 years now, and his most recent work delves deep into violence of his hometown of Chicago. So, yes, the 42-year-old performer spiked his set on this snowy Toronto night with some dead-serious thoughts — but he also knows how to have fun.
Backed by the zigga-ziggas of DJ Dummy, his longtime tour DJ, and support vocals from a female singer, Common bounded through an opening sequence that included a perfect triple play: "The People," "The Corner," "The Food." Ironically, Dummy even switched the beat up, and Common rhymed a verse over Drake's "0 to 100" instrumental. (The two exchanged diss records in 2011.)
Wearing all black everything, the veteran's set was loaded with tracks from his most acclaimed album, Be. And when he brought a female fan onstage to be his muse for "Come Close," she happily wiped the sweat off his bald dome with a towel. Reaches into the back catalogue were predictable but necessary: "The Light" and "I Used to Love H.E.R." The latter was set up by a bit where he shows the audience "pictures" of his first love — raising the album covers of hip-hop classics Long Live the Kane, Paid in Full and Midnight Marauders.
Refreshingly, Common's breath control and enthusiasm haven't faded with age. And the new tracks — "Speak My Peace," "Hustle Harder," "Diamonds" — were delivered with vigour. The highlight of the show — which was preceded by a solid but unspectacular 25-minute warm-up by Jay Electronica — could have been Common's freestyle about Toronto, including shoutouts to DeMar DeRozan, Rob Ford and Yonge Street. But it wasn't.
No, the best part was saved for the encore. Common threw his all into a performance of "Rewind That," his ode to J Dilla, breaking between verses to act out conversations he'd had with his late friend. A little flick of his own acting talents, a little peek into the personal relationship between two great hip-hop artists.
It could've been cheesy. It wasn't at all.