Born in 1972 in Chicago, Illinois, Lonnie Lynn Jr. would become the underground rapper Common, making his album debut with Can I Borrow a Dollar? An artist known for often thoughtful, verbose lyricism and exploring varied sounds, his later albums included Like Water for Chocolate, Electric Circus, and Be, among others. A Grammy winner, Common has also turned to acting, as seen with roles in projects like Just Wright, The Odd Life of Timothy Green and Selma. For the latter film, he and vocalist/musician John Legend have won a Golden Globe and an Oscar for the song "Glory."
Background and Early Career
Future rapper and actor Common was born Lonnie Rashid Lynn Jr. on March 13, 1972 in Chicago, Illinois to educator Mahalia Ann Hines and basketball player Lonnie Lynn Sr. The young Lynn went on to adopt the stage name Common Sense and became an underground rapper who garnered a reputation for relatively thoughtful, progressive lyrics as compared to top-selling rap artists of the time. He released his debut album Can I Borrow a Dollar? on the Relativity label. His next album, Resurrection, came in 1994 and featured the single “I Used to Love H.E.R.” followed in 1997 by One Day It’ll All Make Sense, which included contributions from Lauryn Hill and De La Soul, among others.
Hit Albums and Grammy
After being sued by a band over usage of his performance alias, Lynn simply began to go by Common, as seen with the release of 2000’s Like Water for Chocolate, a hit album which featured production from Questlove and the single “The Light,” with additional musical contributors like D’Angelo, Macy Gray and Roy Hargrove. Common’s next album Electric Circus was much more experimental and diverse in its sonic orientation, with Mary J. Blige featured on the single “Come Close.” Other tracks hosted musicians like Jill Scott, Pharrell Williams, Erykah Badu (to whom Common was romantically linked at the time), Cee Lo Green and Prince.
In 2003, Common won a Grammy for Best R&B Song for “Love of My Life (An Ode to Hip-Hop),” a collaboration with Badu that was featured on the 2002 soundtrack Brown Sugar. (He would receive another Grammy years later for the song “Southside.”)
In 2005, Common dropped the more straightforward, funk/soul-based Be, a No. 2 album on the Billboard charts. The project featured production from fellow Chi-town artist Kanye West, who also contributed lyrically to the single “GO!” and tracks “The Food” and “They Say,” with singer John Legend appearing on the latter song as well.
Acting Projects: 'Just Wright' and 'Selma'
Common has continued to focus on recording as seen with albums Finding Forever (2007; No. 1 on Billboard), Universal Mind Control (2008), The Dreamer/The Believer (2011) and Nobody’s Smiling (2014). Yet he has also increasingly turned to acting, having made his television debut with a role on the sitcom Girlfriends. Later TV projects included One on One and Hell on Wheels, with Common playing 19th-century character Elam Ferguson for several seasons.
The rapper/actor has also landed major parts for big-screen projects, among them American Gangster (2006), Terminator Salvation (2009) and the romantic dramedy Just Wright, playing an injured basketball star opposite Queen Latifah and Paula Patton. He’s also co-starred in family fare such as the animated Happy Feet Two (2011) and Disney’s The Odd Life of Timothy Green (2012), in which he played a soccer coach. Other projects have included the drama LUV (2012), thriller/caper Now You See Me (2013) and Martin Luther King Jr. biopic Selma (2014), in which Common portrayed activist James Bevel. For Selma, Common and Legend won a Golden Globe for the song “Glory” as well as an Academy Award, with both artists using their Oscar acceptance speeches to highlight contemporary issues that connect to the Civil Rights Movement.
In addition to performance work, Common has authored a 2006 children’s book I Like You but I Love Me (illustrations by Lorraine West), as well as a 2011 memoir named after his third album.
(Profile photo of Common by Maarten de Boer/Getty Images)
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