Back in 1992, Common asked the world a simple question and in doing so embarked on a career that would mold him into one of the most esteemed lyricists in hip-hop. Twenty years later, Rap Genius joins Common to celebrate—and make sense of—two decades of clever wordplay, street poetry and ever-evolving hip-hop. Common’s very first album, Can I Borrow a Dollar?, which dropped on Oct. 6, 1992, was playfully lyrical, filled with onomatopoeia, pop culture references and amusing metaphors, but the subjects of his verses were both deep and uncommon from the first track. Over the years, Common has crafted classics that fearlessly address afrocentricity, spirituality, racism, violence and poverty in the ghetto, sexuality and politics. His albums stretch from spoken word to neo-soul to eccentric funky electronic. Today Common reps for President Obama and raps alongside fellow hip hop heavyweights on Cruel Summer. The range and longevity of his career, both in the booth and on the screen is to be admired. We’re happy to celebrate 20 years of good music from Common with 20 of his best lines. —Nicole Otero & Shawn Setaro, Rap Genius Editors
1. “Hip hops the tree and Ima fig it/ Figure it out, the mic I’m ripin it like a ligament” —“A Penny For My Thoughts”
Common dropped his first album and burst out of the gates strong. Loaded with metaphors and similes, Common compares his abilities to everything from religious iconography to a body part. The fig tree in Christianity has many meanings, including the coming of the Kingdom of God in the Gospel of Luke. He plays off fig with “figure” to let you that he goes so hard on the mic, he might tear your ACL. From the spiritual to the corporeal, Common is like a rap game God with his new flow.
2. “I Mark a Marky and a bunch of funky Uncle Thomases” —“Soul By The Pound”
Early in his career, Common was king of incorporating pop culture references seamlessly into his bars. From TV shows to political figures he made it work and made his point. Here Common takes a shot at the pop sensation Marky Mark who could dance but didn’t have lyrical chops. But this isn’t an empty hit, Common calls our attention to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s groundbreaking anti-slavery novel and provides some social commentary for this diss.
3. “I'm hype like I'm unsigned/My diet, I un-swine” —“Resurrection”
The whole Resurrection album is Common at his lyrical pinnacle. It's filled to the brim with wordplay and puns, and is continually surprising and fun to listen to. This line remains one of our favorites simply for the use of the (invented) word “un-swine,” one of hip-hop's top coinages, right up there with “conversate.”
4. “I stand out like a nigga on a hockey team/I got goals and I can like a pop machine” —“Watermelon”
Poking fun at hockey's lack of black faces is not in itself particularly unique. However, this rhyme's dual use of the word “goals,” in keeping with the hockey theme, as well as the pun on “can,” lift it to another level. But what really moves this into the top bracket is Common's self-conscious use of the Midwestern term “pop” for soda. In the midst of all the tricky wordplay, it provides a moment of levity and reminds the listener that you're listening to a real person rapping.
5. “I'm the act to follow, housing kids like Ronald/Mack like Donald Goines, flows I change like coins/Choyng, choyng, choyng” —“Orange Pineapple Juice”
Not only does this rhyme have amazing onomatopoeia (the “choyng” is the sound of coins hitting a table), it's also incredibly complex. The Ronald McDonald House reference flows seamlessly into a shout to rap's favorite pulp author, Donald Goines. That the words “mack” and “donald” somehow become a part of both shows Common's real mastery.
6. “Use higher learning, don't take my words out of 'text/Went from gangsta to Islam to the dick of Das EFX” —“The Bitch in Yoo”
It takes a lot of nerve to accuse a rap legend of trend-chasing. But when Ice Cube and his crew went after Common, the Chi-town rapper showed no mercy in his response song, “The Bitch In Yoo”. These lines perfectly encapsulate Cube's solo career to that point, while using his own movie career against him.
7. “My third eye is my rail, on this L of thought/ With afrocentric stamps I'm mailin thoughts” —"All Night Long"
It’s hard to think of many artists today who can pack as many clever references into a single bar as Common can. Only a few years into the game and Common manages to address his spirituality, city and origins in two bars. Our third eye or pineal gland is considered the “seat of the soul” through which we reach a higher consciousness . Common is already riding his spiritual rail, but he’s also taking the L, which is the mass transit in, Chicago, the city from which he hails. And as if that’s not enough to think about, he shouts out the ethnic ideology present in all his music.
8. “Never been a phony/Express styles like a pony” —“Live From the D.J. Stretch Armstrong Show”
Stuck in the middle of a live cipher with some serious heavy hitters, including Black Thought and Pharoahe Monch, Common undoubtedly needed every trick up his sleeve and then some. So what does he pull out of nowhere? A PONY EXPRESS REFERENCE. Game over.
9. “Sophisticated sissy strut like this is Beat Street with backpacks/Bragging how they don't eat meat in abstract/I smack 'em with they skateboard, flee the crime scene//With a rhyme scheme to escape frauds” —“Cold Blooded”
When Common attempts to attack his own underground, conscious rapper image, the results can sometimes be disastrous, out-of-character tough talk (see his awful “In a circle of faggots, your name is mentioned” line in “Dooinit”). Here, though, he manages to sound convincing while taking on earnest, overly purist backpackers (the “like this is Beat Street” is determinedly not meant as a compliment). Points also for the dual Meters reference to their classic tunes “Sophisticated Cissy” and “Cissy Strut.”
10. “Focused like Gordon Parks when it's sorta dark/For niggas flooded with ice, my thoughts the Ark” —“Dooinit”
Like much of Common's work, this short rhyme is notable for its dense concentration of ideas and images. The photography-related language in the first line—the pun on “focused,” the “sorta dark” relating to a darkroom—ties into the mention of celebrated black photographer Gordon Parks. In the second half, the dual meaning of “flooded” only enhances the rapper's Biblical brag.
11. “It's like Donnie Hath helped me see Lonnie's path/On my behalf, let's take whole steps towards Hotep/And show depth as we make people nod/Find heaven in this music and God” —“Geto Heaven Part Two”
Donnie Hathaway has long been one of hip-hop's favorite singers. His beautiful music and social conviction, tragically cut short by his suicide at 33, inspired countless artists. This lyric pays him a beautiful tribute, while also nodding to ancient Egypt, and to the modern Afrocentrism that reclaimed that culture as part of black history.
12. “Revolutionary blunted rap/ My peoples want hits, I hit it from the back” —“Aquarius”
Regardless of what the critics said, this album was truly ahead of its time (enter 808s & Heartbreak years later) and as the title of this song refers to the “Age of Aquarius”, which is meant to represent a new era of spirituality and harmony, Common takes us there. He likens his revolutionary bars to a blunt, of which his people need a hit. We already know Common is for the people and he’s using unconventional rap “hits” to bring people together, much like you wrap weed in a blunt.
13. “Realness is an act that you cannot rehearse” —“Aquarius”
Along with many of the great hip-hop lyricists, Common has a knack for being succinct; some of his most memorable bars are subtle gems like this one that pack a big punch. One thing we can all agree on is Common keeps it very real—his verses often tackling religion, violence in the streets, and interracial couples. But this noble mission is not a pretense, it’s just who Common is in real life. Some rappers might act the part, but Common just does him, no practice necessary.
14. “Threw dirt on the casket/The hurt, I couldn't mask it/Mixing down emotions/Struggle I hadn't mastered” —“Respiration”
One of the most notable features of Common's style is his intricate wordplay. The puns on “mixing down” and “mastered,” references to parts of the recording process, eluded our understanding for years, as we were so caught up in the emotional content of the verse. The fact that both aspects co-exist so beautifully is what makes this Black Star guest appearance one for the ages.
15. “Got uncles that smoke, and some put blow up they nose/ To cope with the lows, the wind is cold and it blows” —“The Corner”
Common is one of the great storytellers in hip hop (recall “Testify,” also on Be) and this song is overflowing with vivid imagery. His corner, literally and metaphorically, is depicted in precise detail—we see drug addicts hanging around trying to deal with the harsh reality of life there. Common’s own corner was in the windy city of Chicago, and just like wind, “blow” is also a term for what the addicts put up their noses. Even as he plainly describes the ugly realities of the corner, Common’s wordplay is always on point. His rhythm and flow is reminiscent of spoken word, which is appropriate considering The Last Poets, spoken word pioneers and predecessors of hip hop, joined him on this track.
16. “So many raps about rims, surprised niggas ain’t become tires/ On the street you turn cold and then go screech” –"Chi City"
Common and Kanye are consistently a great duo and they never fail to do justice to their city. Common calls out the tired use of cars and “rims” suggesting rappers would themselves turn to tires like those the rims sit on. He takes the tires further to show how weak these rappers are -- they turn cold in the streets because they can’t handle it and end up running to the police, like a tire schreeches before a crash.
17. “Try to box me in like Cassius Clay/hey I’m like Muhammad when he fasted” —“The Game”
Common has a knack for seamless, clever wordplay. Cassius Clay is the birth name of legendary boxer and cultural icon, Muhammad Ali. Common plays on Ali’s name and profession to address how the industry tries to typecast him. This subtle line goes even deeper—Ali changed his name when he converted to the Nation of Islam, which holds fasting as one of its central pillars. Ali was notoriously fast in the ring, but his determination and focus enabled him to lose a lot of weight through fasting. Common is letting those who limit him know that he has the focus of a heavyweight champion.
18. “I touch the masses like a Catholic/ Expensive rap shit, my future’s backlit” —"Universal Mind Control"
Much of Universal Mind Control plays like dance songs for women, but this title track is literally for the masses. Common uses clever religious wordplay—Catholics attend mass—to communicate his divine reach. We already know he’s “The Light” and if his future is backlit, it means he’s leading the way. Let us follow.
19. “I rhyme for the commoners, my name synonymous with prominence/ I’m to Hip Hop what Obama is to politics, Common is” —“Sweet”
A common theme in his music is the meaning behind his pseudonym. Common raps for the average man’s struggle, but as he has risen to fame, he’s also brought prestige to his modest title. Another theme in his music is politics, and in recent years, support for President Obama, his fellow Chicagoan. Obama represented change for politics, and Common is doing the same in hip hop by bringing hope to the common man.
20. “I was born by a lake, chicken shack, and a church/ That mean the flow got wings and it come from the dirt” —“The Morning”
Common didn’t get many verses on Cruel Summer, but he made this one count. In two bars he let’s you know exactly where he’s from through his clever wordplay. We already know he hails from “off 87, the South side of Chicago” but here he’s pointing to Lake Michigan, Harold’s Chicken King on N Wells Street, and St. Peters Church on West Madison -- all in one breath. As a result of where he’s come from, his rap “flow” (lake) soars (wings) above the competition but it’s organic and real (dirt).