Happy 25th Anniversary to Common’s debut album Can I Borrow a Dollar?, originally released October 6, 1992.
1992 was an exceptional year for hip-hop. There were innovative, era-defining albums released by a slew of artists from New York City and Los Angeles, including Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth, Gang Starr, Dr. Dre, Diamond D, Redman, Showbiz & A.G. and Compton’s Most Wanted. And that’s just scratching the surface.
This strong slate of records helped strengthen the belief that rap music was an east and west coast movement, but there was also a lot of good music coming from between the coasts. That’s not to say that regional rap was a new thing in 1992, but it was around this time that a lot more local artists started to reach national attention.
In Houston, the Geto Boys had already gained notoriety with 1991’s We Can’t Be Stopped and Scarface’s debut solo album Mr. Scarface is Back. Not far away, UGK released their full-length debut in 1992 with Too Hard to Swallow. Atlanta’s Arrested Development was finding chart success with “People Everyday,” and somewhere close by André 3000 and Big Boi were busy formulating plans to change the game as OutKast. Further north, Esham was inspiring a future generation of Detroit rappers, Schoolly D and The Roots were showing the world that Philly hip-hop was more than just DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince, and Edo.G was holding down Boston. And again, that’s just scratching the surface.
A hungry emcee named Lonnie Lynn, meanwhile, was representing hard for Chicago. A record deal had materialized on the strength of an appearance in the pages of The Source and their hallowed “Unsigned Hype” column, and by 1992 the self-styled Common Sense was ready to unleash his debut album Can I Borrow a Dollar?.
It’s an endearing and humble project starting from the artwork. It depicts a supposedly homeless Common Sense begging for spare change, presumably willing to rap for money and food. It was a brave image to portray on your debut album in a genre of music where success is usually defined by how much wealth you are perceived to have, and that same sense of openness and honesty runs through the songs. In short, Common Sense wasn’t afraid to be the kind of rapper he wanted to be, rather than the formulaic rapper he could have conformed to become.
Listening to it today, Can I Borrow a Dollar? sounds gimmicky, but back in 1992 rap gimmicks were a big thing. It’s the year we got Das EFX and the ‘iggedy’ style of their Dead Serious album. Out west, The Pharcyde were making fun, goofy rap songs on Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde, coming off as a lighter-hearted and even more eccentric version of Freestyle Fellowship. Busta Rhymes and Snoop Doggy Dogg were also experimenting with different styles and personas in 1992, defining their own lane that would soon see them become stars.
Common Sense’s style was somewhere in the middle of them all on Can I Borrow a Dollar?, with a dusting of influence by Chubb Rock, Biz Markie and C.L. Smooth on top. But he also made it his own, and it’s not hard to understand why singles like “Breaker 1/9” and “Take It EZ” managed to stand out. The nursery rhyme flows, often-simplistic lyrics and lack of much depth may have made it a little inferior to the then long list of future classics that dropped in 1992, but Can I Borrow a Dollar? did at least offer something different.
The artist would later drop the “Sense” from his moniker to become Common, and his artistry and outlook changed beyond recognition by later albums. Can I Borrow a Dollar? should not be overlooked though, and deserves more attention than it gets. It shone a light on the Chicago rap scene that helped pave the way for everyone from Kanye West and No I.D. (who produced most of Can I Borrow a Dollar? under the name Immenslope) to Chance The Rapper and Lupe Fiasco.