Happy 25th Anniversary to Common’s second studio album Resurrection, originally released October 4, 1994.
In the NBA, every year a player wins the “Most Improved” award. The vast majority of the time, the award isn’t won by someone who was bad and got better, but by a player who was already pretty damn good, but then took his career to the next level. This is what Lonnie “Common Sense” Lynn accomplished 25 years ago with the release of his sophomore album. Resurrection. An already skilled emcee who completely raised his game and almost unexpectedly became one of hip-hop’s best artists.
Resurrection really got hip-hop heads across the country to recognize the Chicago scene. Common wasn’t the first Chi City rapper to record and release nationally distributed music, but the album’s struck a note with audiences throughout the country in scenes very far from the Midwest. The album’s top-shelf lyricism and its creator’s attention to his craft has made it timeless and among the greatest hip-hop releases ever.
Common first got noticed with his debut album, Can I Borrow a Dollar? (1992). In retrospect, while a solid enough project, it sounds like a decent first draft, or, in Common’s words, an extended demo. He came across as a brash, squeaky-voiced emcee with a Das EFX-like affinity for pop culture references. It was an enjoyable listen, but only hinted at his potential.
You could first see the genesis of Common’s growth as an artist with the “Soul By the Pound” 12-inch, released during the late summer of 1993. The centerpiece was the “Thump Mix” of “Soul By the Pound,” a lyrical remix of what was before a middling album track. Some of that aforementioned brashness was still there, but his wordplay was cleverer and his delivery had improved. Paired with the exclusive B-side “Can-I-Bust,” I’ve always held that the “Soul By the Pound” 12-inch is one of the best maxi-singles of all time.
But, as Common proclaims, “I done got better since ‘Soul By the Pound!’” And he was right. On Resurrection his lyricism is even sharper, his vocal presence is stronger, and his ability to put together conceptual rhymes is second to none. He explains in Brian Coleman’s Check the Technique that some of the improvement had to do with age, as he was considerably more mature and confident in his abilities. The album is an aural representation of Common growing into adulthood, as he was beginning to define his own identity.
Resurrection is more pensive and more descriptive than his first release, and it does an even better job at capturing the sound and feel of the city of Common’s birth. While recording Resurrection, Common drew influences from the Native Tongues collective, jazz music, and the works of the Last Poets, but it still sounded like a product of its own unique scene.
“Book of Life” literally addresses Common’s growth into adulthood. He portrays a fictionalized version of himself, at first young and directionless, gripped by malaise, struggling to find a sense of purpose. He ponders, “How can you understand the pain when you never had to stand under the rain?” It’s a thoughtful exploration on how people search to find peace of mind during their younger years, trying to find meaning in the bustle of just living life.
Resurrection is best known for its first single “I Used to Love H.E.R.” At the time, it was groundbreaking in the way that Common narrates the evolution of his love for hip-hop by describing it in the same way he would a fly girl (For those who don’t know “H.E.R.” in this case stands for “Hip-Hop, in its Essence, and Real”). Nowadays, comparing love of hip-hop to the love of a woman is practically passé, but 25 years ago, Common was a pioneer. Over a loop of George Benson’s “The Changing World,” he describes how the object of his affection went from having “so much soul” to being smoked out and abused by those who don’t care about its development.
The song famously became a source of beef with Los Angeles hip-hop icon Ice Cube. In the process of forming Westside Connection, Cube latched onto the extremely corny East Coast/West Coast tension being peddled by the likes of Death Row Records at the time. Cube took exception to “I Used to Love H.E.R.,” believing that Common was claiming that the West Coast was ruining hip-hop. The battle led to a few extremely contentious dis tracks, including Common’s “Bitch In Yoo,” but their conflict was ultimately squashed in 1996.
Another of Resurrection’s highlights is “Nuthin’ To Do,” a smooth love letter to the South Side of Chicago. By describing roaming the streets of Chicago during his younger years, looking to get into some sort of trouble, Common paints a picture of the city during the late ’80s and early ’90s, describing Chicago’s local landmarks and scene in perfect detail. Whether it’s catching a House/Hip-Hop event at the Hyde Park Racquetball Club or playing “Off the Wall” (the game, not the Michael Jackson album), Common gives the audience a sense of what growing up in Chicago was like.
For all the introspection that Common displays on Resurrection, it’s still a fun album, and there’s a wry streak of mischief that runs through it. Common is a clever lyricist first and foremost, and he dedicates much of the album towards proving his aptitude as an emcee. He displays these skills on songs like the title track, “Communism,” “Orange Pineapple Juice,” “Maintain,” and “Some Shit I Wrote.”
“Watermelon” is a brief lyrical exercise, where Common raps to a funky bassline sampled from King Curtis’ “Sweet Inspiration.” He continuously modifies his rhyme delivery as the song progresses, dropping clever punchlines like, “I come clean like a fiend in Chi, I’m down with rehab / Stir my style crazy, ’cause that's right, we bad, we bad / Pryor to Richard I was that crazy n***a, ’cause I kick ass / And when I wreck it other rappers be like ‘whiplash!’” Meanwhile, on “Thisisme,” he utilizes a much more conversational, stream of consciousness approach to rap. Common almost sounds likes he’s freestyling as he raps over a slightly sped-up loop of Alton McClain & Destiny’s “Power of Love.”
The production on Resurrection is split between No I.D. (formerly Immenslope) and Ynot (formerly Twilite Tone). Both were damn good emcees as well. No I.D. joins Common on “In My Own World (Check the Method),” anchored by misty keys and vibraphones. He holds his own with the album’s star, rapping, “From the word, I speak, unique, clear and concise / Heads I’m boring, soaring to a new height of flight / And then fight the night / With a light to gain sight make your competition say ‘I-ight.’” No I.D. would release his own album, Accept Your Own & Be Yourself (The Black Album) (1997), a few years later.
Common later tag teams with Ynot on “Chapter 13 (Rich Man Vs. Poor Man),” one of my favorite songs on Resurrection. Here the two flow over a sample of Archie Whitewater’s “Cross Country.” Ynot assumes the role of the swaggering “rich man,” consumed by his material wealth, rapping, “I’m royal when I flush, your highest hush’ll get mushed / Like a sleigh dog, I slay dogs who are under me / I’m over men; call me Doberman, cause I’m a Pinscher of pennies that’s pretty.” Meanwhile, Common plays the part of the “poor man,” confident that “money doesn’t make me / I’m a reflection of my section and my section 8.”
The album ends with “Pop’s Rap,” where Common’s father, former ABA player Lonnie “Pops” Lynn Jr., gets on the mic and speaks from the heart. Here Pops shoots the shit in a heartfelt way, riffing on everything from basketball to peace and unity. He would go on to record an outro for nearly every subsequent Common album until his death in 2014.
Common has continued to put out albums during the quarter of century following Resurrection’s arrival and has built one of the stronger discographies in hip-hop. He’s grown even more introspective and politically aware, and has become even more comfortable with himself as an emcee and a person. Even on Let Love (2019), his most recent album, the influences of Resurrection are apparent. Through the GRAMMYs, Oscars, Tonys, and Dell commercials, it is the musical foundation that continues to guide his career.