Last week, a fan tweeted Common and asked him what his new book was about. His reply was succinct even by Twitter standards: "Love. Manhood. Chicago."
"Those words really, like, define the book," the Chicago rapper and actor told the Sun-Times in an interview days later. "It's about the evolution of a young man growing into manhood. It's about love relationships, not only on a romantic level but love for the art you're doing, music and acting, love for my mother, my daughter.
"And, of course, Chicago. It's not only the backdrop on the cover, it's the backdrop of my life."
The book is One Day It'll All Make Sense (Atria, $25, 297 pages), a memoir by Lonnie Rashid Lynn Jr., a.k.a. Common (and before that, Common Sense). Common, 39, has released eight rap albums -- with a new one, "The Dreamer, the Believer" coming in November -- and developed a reputation as a "conscious" hip-hop artist.
That means his autobiography is full of deep thoughts, or what passes for them, and takes an arty approach to the genre. He opens each chapter with a letter to a different person, including Emmett Till, Common's estranged father, his aborted child, various friends, even music itself ("Dear Hip Hop: I used to love u").
COMMON BOOK SIGNINGS
◆ Noon to 2 p.m. Tuesday, Macy's, 111 N. State
◆ 5:45 to 8 p.m. Tuesday, DePaul Barnes & Noble, 1 E. Jackson
It's a breezy read, light on musical specifics but chock full of open-eyed introspection and the occasional juicy detail. We learn that Common nearly gave up rapping after his first album, "Can I Borrow a Dollar?" in 1992, barely sold a few thousand copies. We get the details of just how soul singer Erykah Badu broke his heart by dumping him in 2002 -- over the phone. We wade through a lot of nebulous spiritualism and effusive praise of fellow Chicago rapper, friend and collaborator Kanye West.
The book is written with the assistance of Adam Bradley, co-editor of Yale's groundbreaking Anthology of Rap, but there's an important and prominent third party in this text: Common's mom.
The memoir shares its title with Common's 1997 album, the cover of which is a 1980 photo showing 8-year-old Rashid sitting with his mother, Chicago educator Dr. Mahalia Ann Hines. Mama Common has been an integral force in the rapper's life choices, world outlook and even a few of his rhymes, so it might not be surprising to see her frequent appearance in this memoir; she's not just a subject discussed by Common, she contributes several lengthy passages, adding her own commentary to the narrative throughout the book.
"Adam interviewed me separately, and we just talked," Hines said in a separate conversation. "I was surprised at some of the things I said myself."
She was also surprised by a few of the things she read in Common's life story. "It wasn't shocking, but a few things were surprising," she said. "There are things I learned about him that I didn't know he did in his teen years. But I'm sure if you wrote a book about what I did in my teen years, my mother would be surprised, too!"
As Common recalled, "She told me, 'Boy, I got to learn some things about you!' I mean, that's my best friend in the world. ... She said she was surprised how much I was out on the street hanging out, gang-banging."
Many of Hines' passages are some of the richest prose in One Day It'll All Make Sense. She's the first to set up a common theme for Common -- the idea of a Chicago personality, a fighting spirit and resourcefulness that informs many of his decisions in his personal life and in the entertainment business. Whenever an incident is related in which Common gets hotheaded, or when he has to make the best of a bad situation, he says it's his Chicago side coming out.
"Growing up in Chicago you learn how to survive -- some people call it hustle," Hines says in the book, reflecting on Common's South Side upbringing. "It meant that I could make a way out of no way."
Said Common, "I think we have a very true, authentic, warm sense about us coming from Chicago. There's also some grit and rawness and ruggedness that exists, too. That comes out in things I've done. Some of those incidents I talk about where I got into fights, some street things I was involved in -- it's part of Chicago life, it's part of me. People don't always picture Common doing those things, but we've all got a past. I'm not afraid to look back."
Midway through the book, after the reader has grown used to the rhythm of Hines' italicized interjections, it's she who addresses an obvious question: "I often wonder what the definition of a mama's boy is," she's quoted as saying. She considers several definitions but never chooses one to apply to her son.
Common was close to and ended up working with West, another well-known mama's boy. Chapter 10 relays some of the creativity that flourished between them while working on Common's 2005 album, "Be," which received a Grammy nomination. "Kanye always had that raw speak-your-mind thing," Common writes. No kidding.
One Day It'll All Make Sense dwells on personal details but flies through the discography, barely mentioning some albums and often skipping over the recording process entirely. Common does devote a chapter to the other side of his career -- as an actor, which has its own new chapter this fall when he co-stars in "Hell on Wheels," a Western cable series premiering Nov. 6 on AMC.
The book wraps with a reflection on this year's controversy over his invitation to perform at the White House -- without really mentioning President Obama at all. Instead, he offers readers insight into the flashpoint of the manufactured drama: his feelings about the subject of his song "A Song For Assata," which relates the story of convicted cop killer and fugitive Assata Shakur.
Ultimately, though, Common's memoir is about the struggle for manhood. After pages of life lessons and hard choices, I asked Common what it meant to be a man, if he felt he knew yet. He was quiet before answering.
"As a man, I take responsibility for things I'm doing, have done or want to do," he said. "Talking about this stuff helped me see different aspects that make me a man -- the sense of self, who you are, things you want in life, things you love, what your values are. A man has to be able to express himself, to say what he needs and wants and do that in any setting, to be himself. But he has to take responsibility. ...
"I still ain't mastered it. I eventually figured it was OK to write this book -- 'cause at first I was like, have I lived enough? -- but I thought I've lived enough that it might resonate with someone. I've learned about how to be a man in increments. I like that life is a journey, that you never get it all. That's why, you know, one day it's all going to make sense."