By Martin Cizmar
Common is about as close to imageless as you can get in the rap game. He’s got the pretty boy thing going, but he’s not LL Cool J or Nelly. He’s known for smart rhymes, but he’s not Talib Kweli. He’s got live instrumentation, but it’s not his defining characteristic, like, say, The Roots. He’s a fashionable guy – appearing in a Gap ad campaign – but he’s no Diddy.
As the Chicago rapper hopped on stage at the Marquee last night, opening with “Announcement” from his upcoming Universal Mind Control album, it was clear that his ability to defy definition serves him well live. Backed by a Soulquarian-style six-piece band, Common played a brisk set pulling songs from across his 16-year career.
Highlights included his three-song serenade of a local girl pulled on stage (“I would have died,” said Abby, my female companion) and an impressive freestyle where he managed to drop references to Amare Stoudemire, Camelback Mountain, Matt Leinart and Arizona Mills mall. “I Used to love H.E.R.” off 1994’s Resurrection, has aged well and got the diverse crowd going. A few verses from Nas’ “N.Y. State of Mind” were another bright spot.
Several songs from Universal Mind Control, due in November, weren’t quite as engaging. Common says the record is meant to be a tribute to summer, and features party songs inspired by “barbecues and strippers” because that’s what his catalog was missing. Common does a lot of things very well, but party anthems aren't his strong suit.
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The opener and the title track were both solid, but the Pharell-produced “Gladiator” (referencing the movie from Y2K, already a little passé when Jay Z borrowed lines for The Black Album’s “What More Can I say?”) at the end of the set wasn’t quite the crowd-pleaser the show needed. Common deserves credit for refusing to rest on his laurels, churning our more socially-conscious raps if he’s got a banger in him, but his show could use some fine-tuning so (irony appreciated) the party songs are buried in the middle of the set.