Photos by Vickey Ford (Sneakshot) for Okayplayer
Few things in this world are more gratifying than being welcomed to a venue as prestigious and historic as The Kennedy Center by the wall-shaking drums of a J Dilla production. It was a singular and fitting cocktail hour tune — “The Look Of Love ” — warming the hearts of heads for Common‘s big night with The National Symphony Orchestra. A former roommate and longtime collaborator as the spiritual center of The Soulquarians, some of the Detroit producer’s most readily-identifiable works (“The Light,” “Love Is,” nearly the entirety of Like Water For Chocolate and Electric Circus) have been dedicated to Common’s catalog.
Last night, Com Sense from the city of wind, paid tribute and then some to his late friend and production legend, who would have been elated to see his kung-fu swing suites emboldened by the hands and voices of world class musicians. Naturally, Okayplayer, TIDAL and The Kennedy Center brought this music nerd fantasy to historic reality, joining forces to coordinate and live stream a rare honor in hip-hop and music at large.
At the helm of the conductor, Steven Reineke (donning a lavish velvet-crushed blazer no less) the NSO was a perfect thickening agent to cuts that were already sturdy and timeless as they come. But, before fifty some odd players filled the bandstand, the crowd was treated to a spoken word routine from some of DC’s most poignant and poised young voices from community-based arts and poetics program, Split This Rock. With both musical and sentiment sentiments in place, the stage was set for the seasoned Chicago rapper to join the ranks of some of hip-hop’s most cherished orchestrally-assisted showmen (Kanye West, JAY Z, Nas, and Kendrick Lamar.)
And he did not disappoint. The band floods the stage and bassist Derrick Hodge opens the set on the upright with the buoyant low-end line from “Be,” where Reineke’s string section swooped in and gave us our very first sip of what would prove to be an unforgettable brew of rapturous arrangements. Common storms in stage-left, head-to-toe in a tux-striped suit, and proceeds to lead us through a career retrospective touching on each album, phase and hit in his catalogue. Settled in, other big bang greats immediately came to mind — Marvin Gaye (a DC native,) Frank Sinatra and consummate crooners of the orchestral pop and soul eras — and the cues were clear. Common, now a man of many hats, appears to have fully-realized the entertainer within; pulling up a fan from the crowd to join him for a stage-side freestyle serenade with a glass of wine, as flutist Elena Pinderhughes fills in for Syd on their collaborative Black America Again track, dapping the conductor mid-set for holding down the troops in the barracks.
Common is as cool, comfortable and concerted as ever, and certainly not adverse to performing songs he’s featured on with the lead absent. “Get Em High” came at the tail-end of the show’s first movement with all of the percussive strings and swagger one could hope for. The veer into non-catalog material would again be felt ten-fold as The Howard University Gospel Choir joined for a rendition of “Black America Again” in the key of Marvin’s “Inner City Blues,” Again when “Testify” was bent to the will of Prince‘s “Darling Nikki” (followed by a personal account from Common of his first spell with The Paisley Arts) once more when “Go” was transformed into a Chicago house homage a la Kanye’s “Fade.” The evening’s crown jewel, however, would arrive in the final act: a lush and engulfing take on “I Used To Love H.E.R.” that needs a studio treatment like Martin needs Gina.
The Concert Hall at The Kennedy Center, as it turns out, is far from a common spectacle. Three tiers of never-bad seating, two escape terraces that stretch the building’s length and regal red carpets throughout. This is a place royalty and regulars become indistinguishable. In the case of one particular Southside Chicago rapper, it was a career-defining moment, now every bit the king we’d always known him to be. For us here at HQ, it capped off two days of programming at the DC institution that included a soul-healing performance from KING and a chat between the Chicago rapper and writer, poet, activist, Chinaka Hodge.
Jump back to feed your eyes, ears and mind with Tuesday’s events and revisit last night’s performance below via TIDAL.