By Nate "Igor" Smith
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"Put it this way: I want to not only be the leading man, I want you to be able to say, 'Common's one of the great actors of our time,'" the rapper known as, well, Common, says with all earnestness. He's lit up, discussing his latest movie role in the summer blockbuster Wanted and the future of his burgeoning acting career. "I can take on roles in anything, and I know I can," he continues. "I'm going to create those opportunities."
The two-time Grammy winner (he's been nominated 11 times) is still best known for his socially conscious rhymes on albums such as Be and last year's Finding Forever. But he credits being cast as a high-level thug in last year's movie Smokin' Aces for transforming him as an artist. Watching the loud, fractionally above-average shoot-'em-up, one doubts how such a revelation could be made on its fake-blood-spattered set. But it seems Common, age 36, had some sort of revelation: "When I got that chance, it was over," he laughs.
Parts in Ridley Scott's Denzel Washington vehicle, American Gangster, and a quickly forgotten Keanu Reeves-fronted cop drama, Street Kings, soon followed. And on June 27, Wanted, a big-budget comic-book movie about a league of assassins, hit theaters. Further, later this year, Common will begin shooting the third Terminator installment, in which he'll play freedom fighter John Connor's good friend. Oh, and there are, of course, those persistent rumors he'll portray Green Lantern in the delayed Justice League of America movie.
"When you're an artist, you want to grow as you create," Common explains. "I think acting's just an expansion of my artistry. When you love something, you love it. I found that I love this. I'm not surprised I did, but I am surprised by how it made me feel. I was learning something about myself acting and about people. You relate to people a whole different way because you've walked in their shoes a bit."
Consequently his work in the recording studio has been evolving at a rapid clip. "I deal with characters more," he says. "I always dealt with the story, but now I tell the story of the person and how they got to be this way. Also, when I'm rapping, I try to make sure the emotion is coming through like I would with a character."
Moreover, he says acting will take him to a freer place as a musical artist. "I've been doing hip-hop for a long time. It's been my sole means of expression. With me doing movies, it gives me another outlet artistically and another way to survive and create income — which allows me to make music more freely. At some point, music will become [more than a way] to make a living. It will just be something I want to do, while acting will be my living."
One would then expect Common's upcoming album, Invincible Summer — to be released this August — to reflect some of these changes. But judging by the first single, "Universal Mind Control," listeners will have to look back to 2007's Finding Forever to see the new Common in action. This is not to say Summer doesn't sound like another step in the rapper's evolution, though, with some fresh sounds courtesy of the Neptunes' production. The lead single is certainly evidence of that. "The inspiration came to me from being out at the clubs. I'd say, 'Man, I want people to feel my music that way.' [Invincible Summer] is just good summertime music that you can sit back, smile, kick it to. I say smile on the album so many times. The album is about people smiling."
Common himself smiles a lot these days. "Yeah, it's been a great year, man," he says. But more than his personal triumphs, "it's looking out at the world and seeing hope" that leaves him most affected. "It's not just Barack Obama — though he's obviously a reflection of that hope — but people are obviously starting to say, 'Man, we're tired of the BS. We want something more for ourselves, the country, more importantly, the world.'" When he puts it that way, Invincible Summer sounds like the calm before a much-needed storm.