LOS ANGELES With a budding acting career and a renewed passion for hip-hop, rapper Common delivers both fighting talk and inspirational messages on his latest album "The Dreamer/The Believer," released on Tuesday.
"I feel a fresh take on it because hip-hop is actually becoming exciting," Common told Reuters.
"You've got a lot of new artists that really care for the culture, like J Cole, Kendrick Lamar, Big Sean. These guys really do creative work. There's a lot of flavor out there, and you still have some of the greats still sounding great, like Nas and Jay-Z."
Common, 39, emerged on the scene as CommonSense in 1992, working with producer No I.D. on his first three albums and gaining recognition in the underground hip-hop scene, before breaking through with his fourth "Like Water for Chocolate."
Teaming up with No I.D more than a decade after they last worked together, the rapper believes both brought new things to "The Dreamer/The Believer" -- his ninth studio album.
"We learned so much in between not working together that we were able to bring our new thoughts and ideas to it, and it's just a freshness that I have for hip-hop right now," he said.
The album explores a variety of emotions and themes, with inspirational messages in "The Dreamer" and "The Believer," on which he collaborates with John Legend. There is fighting talk about life and longevity on "Ghetto Dreams," a song with rapper Nas, and Common addresses nostalgia on "Lovin' I Lost."
On opening track "The Dreamer," Common raps "maybe I'm a hopeless hip-hop romantic, I'm a dreamer," over a laid-back beat that later features poet Maya Angelou reciting verses about the dreams of the African-American people.
"I love the poetry of Maya Angelou and if a 13-year-old may listen to it in three years' time and think 'hey, that's incredible,' I want it to resonate seven years from now or 70 years from now," said the rapper.
"The Dreamer/The Believer" has received mostly positive reviews from critics.
Time Magazine's Claire Suddath found the juxtaposition between the inspirational and provocative tracks to be "fascinating," while Los Angeles Times writer Ernest Hardy gave the album two and a half stars out of four, saying while the album sounds "fantastic," Common is "still stuck in the tug of war between street cred and a more nuanced worldview."
After nearly two decades of building a career in the hip-hop scene, Common is embracing new ways of discovering music, including teaming up with Blackberry's BBM Music app to share songs with his fans.
"It's a great experience to share music with people, I get to make a mixtape for people, and they get to see the variety I like," explained the rapper.
The rapper is also forging ahead with his acting career, recently lending his voice to animated film "Happy Feet 2" and joining the cast of TV network AMC's 19th century drama "Hell on Wheels," set in a time when racial prejudice ran rife.
"For me to connect to it is really like some deep experiences, because when you are filming a show and there's a person calling you a nigger, it's inevitable that you feel it," he said. "It's not sugar-coating things or being politically correct, it's putting everything out on the table."
For the rapper, his dreams are far from over.
"I'd like to play Marvin Gaye," Common said about the legendary soul singer who died in 1984. "I'd have to up my singing game, but I could try."
(Editing by Jill Serjeant and Bob Tourtellotte)