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    Common On Writing Music


Common is defining the times with his 11th studio album, Black America Again. The 15-track collection is the Chicago rapper's most political to date, a call to action inspired by the works of filmmaker Ava DuVernay, social critic Ta-Nehisi Coates and the Black Lives Matter uprising, among other 21st Century cultural touchstones. "The album denotes the journey of Black life and Black people living in America," Common shares. "From all the struggles to the things we've overcome to the injustices to the inequality to the dehumanizing that has existed in all eras, not just the civil rights. But from the days since we arrived on the shores of America -- it's been, again." The title track, "Black America Again," featuring Stevie Wonder, is produced by jazz maestros Karriem Riggins and Robert Glasper and finds Common's searing rhymes addressing these themes, including materialism versus legislation with quick-witted observations like "Who freed me?/Lincoln or Cadillac?" In October, Common previewed three new records from the album -- "Letter to the Free," The Day Women Took Over" and "Little Chicago Boy" -- during an exclusive N.P.R. "Tiny Desk" performance at The White House, a first for both the public radio service and 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. On "Letter to the Free" (already a 2016 Critics' Choice nominee for Best Documentary Song from DuVernay's "13th"), Philly soul crooner Bilal joins Common for a modern take on Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit," where the pair deliver a moving testimony of what it means to be free but not equal. "Institution ain't just a building, but a method of having Black and brown bodies fill them," Common raps before asking "Will the U.S. ever be us?" Meanwhile, "Little Chicago Boy" is a rumination on masculinity that doubles as a hug-you-tight dedication to Common's late father, Lonnie Lynn, long a staple on the MC's most popular albums. Common explains: "You get to that point where you see your parent as a human being, not the all-encompassing parent with all the answers and I wrote about that, appreciating my father for all of who he was as a human being." Throughout Black America Now an undercurrent of salvation exists via what Common calls "unapologetically, unashamedly God music." "I've listened to more gospel music more than ever in my life," he says. "I always felt like it was always necessary, as artists, that we have musicians and people that are able to communicate God in ways and places that some people who look for God may not go." With the help of a host of collaborators ranging from Marsha Ambrosius ("Love Star"), John Legend "Rain") and J Dilla (TK, TK, TK), and influences from James Baldwin, Zora Neale Hurston and Lin-Manuel Miranda, Common seeks to construct a piece of art that's as timely as it is timeless. "I wanted to write this well, so let me set the bar so that I could strive for that," he says. "This new story is really the expression of who we are as Black people from a 360-degree angle of who we are. The colors of who we are, the joy, the humor, the grace, the freedom, the fun, the rhythm, the pain, the chains, the prisons. I wanted this to be an artistic expression of what Black people and Black culture are at this time." This is Black America. Again.