The first time I saw Common live was in Sydney, around 2006, when he was brought out as the token hip hop act for Big Day Out. It was, to my knowledge, his first headline tour across the country and I was lucky enough to witness it in a venue as intimate as Metro Theatre. It remains one of the best hip hop shows I’ve seen to date and cemented Common, to me, as one of the absolute greatest performers of the culture, in addition to being a “top 10” emcee. Though his output is further apart than it used to be, it’s clear Common hasn’t lost that spirit and drive that puts him beyond his peers, which is why his joint headline show with equally formidable Talib Kweli at the Enmore Theatre was unmissable.
To set it off right, local stalwart Sarah Connor took us through some fresh new material which indicated a move towards more on-trend, trap-style beats, a substantial leap away from the boom bap that coloured her older material. Connor can flow with the best of ’em in the local scene and that was highlighted when she brought out two special guests: fellow local Losty and UK-to-Sydney emcee Bigredcap, both of whom appear on a couple of tracks from her new album. There’s certainly strength in numbers here, the high-points of her impressive support set being the two cuts this trio would push out, beefed by a very “Dizzee Rascal circa Boy in Da Corner” sounding Bigredcap, whose forceful, acrobatic delivery stole the show.
Kweli was last here with Dead Prez in tow, seeing as his appearance at last year’s Soulfest was sadly cancelled when the festival was canned altogether. Evidently, his presence had been missed among hip hop fans down under, cheers shaking the room as he would burst out and immediately start flipping through multi-syllabic verses that were as dizzying as they were powerful. The legendary emcee raps with a clarity most similarly speedy rappers cannot reproduce live, effortlessly sliding through early heavy-hitters like “Listen!!!” and his monstrous verse from “Down for the Count”.
If one had forgotten how crucial Talib was and is in reiterating hip hop as a complex and powerful artform, then this set was a stark reminder, proving true talent in rap can never age. To further this, Kweli made all the right choices in his set list, seeing as his discography is so vast and comprehensive; cuts like “The Blast” and both versions of “Definition” could have easily stretched into a stadium along with grooves like “Hot Thing”, which seamlessly segued into a brief Prince tribute, as The Purple One’s track of the same name was brought in, right before Kweli let “I Wanna Be Your Lover” wash over the venue.
It was obvious that Kweli’s desire to not only entertain but inspire his fans was a big part of his show, illustrating tracks like “K.O.S (Determination)” with reasons why he wrote those lyrics and why they are so important not just to the black community, but for all those who face oppression across the world. If his goal was to get people thinking and cheering in agreement with muses on what needs to change in society, while at the same time getting them all hyped up, then that was achieved ten fold.
Common is a pure force of energy live, rushing out onto stage with urgency and bouncing back and forth while rapping through “The People” with his band and the soulful Maimouna Youssef (AKA Mumu Fresh) on the assist. Some rappers don’t know how to work with a live band, but Common doesn’t seem to have that problem at all, feeding off the extra heft this small but effective group of musicians supply, recreating some of the highlights of his career with added flourishes mostly drawn from the sample on which many of these beats were based. Common is incredible with only a DJ backing him, but with a full set up, the man is a force to be reckoned with.
“Kingdom” sounds worlds apart from the recorded version with a brilliant instrumental that led into one of the man’s best singles, “The Corner”, the band working the classic beat from Hov‘s “Where I’m From” into the latter half of the track and putting a fresh spin on it. Both tracks forming a solid introduction that would end up taking the Enmore all the way back to Resurrection.
Common doesn’t allow for pauses or awkward lulls in his sets, it all flows like a well-oiled machine whether it be thanks to the band, Mumu, or Common himself as he leads into cuts with freestyles or reflections on his career. “I’m still hungry as a muh’fucka,” he’d shout before launching straight into Be highlight “The Food”. It was clear that the passion and determination that has characterised him for his entire career is still channeled into every party of of his show; from the way he delivers his poetic style on the profound “Black Maybe”, or just how busily he darts back and forth across the stage, beads of sweat making the stage lights shine off the top of his dome, which was eventually wiped down by a fan at his request before he seranded her with the fly love song, “Come Close.”
Fans were treated to lesser known cuts like Dilla’s “Thelonius” and the inventive “Rewind That”, as well as verses from “Make ‘Em Say” and The Roots’ “Act Too (Love of my Life)”, but the most satisfying moment came when Kweli was brought back out onto the stage. The two emcees wasted no time in giving us the raw, vital “Respiration” before an energetic “Get ‘Em High” stirred the Enmore into a frenzy, again bringing it back to that perfect set arrangement as Alicia Keys‘ “You Don’t Know My Name” slid in when Common punched out “That’s why the raw don’t know your name/like Alicia Keys”. It was perfect timing like this that made the immaculate finale work so well.
Starting with the soulful lift of “Be (Intro)”, Common went into a blend which started out as a performance of “It’s Your World” but then brought in shades of Nas‘ “The World Is Yours” before the Chi-Town legend ripped through the first verse of the Pete Rock-produced classic, then taking it all the way back to personal favourite “Resurrection” (something he rarely performs live, at least out this way) and then bringing it back into “It’s Your World”. The execution was flawless, and spoke highly for how adaptable Common is as he’d subtly change his style for each shift.
These kind of tours are rare down here – especially when the artists collaborate on stage – powerful and exact reminders of the artistic value of hip hop and how much that has been eroded in recent years.
Common Set List
The Corner (with “Where I’m From” beat)
Respiration (with Talib Kweli)
Get ‘Em High (with Talib Kweli)
Sydney Freestyle/Come Close
Act Too (Love of My Life)/Love of My Life (Erykah Badu Cover with Mumu Fresh)/I Used to Love H.E.R
Go (with Prince’s Kiss beat)
Make ‘Em Say
The Light/So Far to Go
It’s Your World/The World is Yours (Nas Cover)/Resurrection/It’s Your World (Reprise)