Concert Review: Common at The Queen Elizabeth Theatre in Toronto

 

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Common at The Queen Elizabeth Theatre in Toronto, Aug. 2019

For the first time in five years, Common has returned to Toronto on his Let Love Tour. The acclaimed Chicago emcee/actor/author has had many artistic endeavors in recent years, always pushing his own boundaries with the various looks, feels, and styles of the characters he portrays in film, and with each of his musical releases. He’s now gearing up to release his twelfth studio album at the end of August, Let Love, which is inspired by the recent novel he published called Let Love Have The Last Word. He’s built anticipation for the album with his two new singles, the J Dilla-produced “HER Love,” which continues the storytelling he first innovated Hip-Hop with on 1994’s “I Used To Love H.E.R.,” and his first ever Swizz Beatz collaboration, “Hercules.” On top of that, he’s taken time out of his busy film schedule to make a full return to Hip-Hop, going on his first world tour in years with a free pre-order of the new album included with every ticket sold.

Common’s return to Toronto would bring him to the intimate Queen Elizabeth Theatre. Similar to how Common hadn’t performed in the city for five years, The Queen Elizabeth Theatre hasn’t had many notable Hip-Hop shows in about five years either, the last one of memory being when Nas brought his Time Is Illmatic Tour here in 2014. The venue hasn’t changed much, as you still had two separate lines for snacks and beer/wine that could throw you off, with a fully stocked bar hidden in a far corner. The merch booth had some fly t-shirts with art from both the tour and the album/novel, along with notebooks for sale.

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As we made our way to our seats, there was a good mix of all-time classic Hip-Hop being spun by legendary Toronto DJ, DJ Mastermind, who is a pioneer when it comes to Hip-Hop getting some of its first airplay on Toronto radio stations. Word was he seemingly came out of retirement just to represent for the classic heads. After rocking for a few minutes, Mastermind made way for Common’s only touring opener, Maimouna Youssef a/k/a Mumu Fresh.

Although I’ve heard Maimouna Youssef featured on songs by The Roots, I went into this concert completely unfamiliar with her own music. The lights went dark, causing the fans to put away their phones or risk being made obvious they weren’t paying attention, and Youssef captivated with some soulful singing. Backed by a live band, Mumu Fresh had a raw, authentic blend of Hip-Hop and RnB. The uninitiated such as myself started to get into her set when she performed a cover/remix of Lorde’s “Royals” using the same melodies but different lyrics. Later on in her set she would get into a medley of popular Hip-Hop covers, performing a better, more on-tempo version of “Doo Wop (That Thing)” than Lauryn Hill does these days, and getting the entire crowd on their feet when she did Slick Rick’s “Children’s Story.”

After Mumu Fresh rocked the crowd for a solid half hour, DJ Mastermind returned to spin some more 90’s Hip-Hop classics. We’d take the opportunity to refill our drinks, and returned just in time for the man of the hour, Common.

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Common

Common would also be joined by a live band on stage, and he would put some of his acting skills on display too, starting his set lounging with a living room chair and lamp off to the side of the stage. Throughout his set he would return to the living room setting for short interludes, calmly spitting verses presumably off of the upcoming new album. The crowd listened attentively and cheered during the first of these interludes when he spit the bar “my daughter is now my teacher,” and would soon get hype as he got into more familiar material. He introduced himself and where he’s from by teasing the intro to one of his many Kanye West-assisted classics, “Southside,” before abruptly transitioning into the lead single off of his classic 2005 album, Be, with “The Corner.” After the live band allowed him to do a more hyped rendition of the usually more laid-back classic, Common continued on with another deep album cut also off Be, getting the crowd to sing along to “The Food.”

After another living room interlude, Common would start to take it back, spitting part of the first rap verse he ever wrote when he was twelve years old, acapella. Setting the mood for some storytelling, Com would of course get into the throwback “I Used To Love H.E.R.,” performing the first verse of that song before getting into the brand new sequel, “HER Story.” We were thinking Toronto’s own Daniel Caesar might make a surprise appearance to perform his guest feature on the new single for his hometown, but he was nowhere to be seen as Common gave him a shoutout. Common would continue the Hip-Hop love stories, vibing out to Erykah Badu’s “Love Of My Life (An Ode To Hip-Hop),” but abruptly cutting it short after spitting the lyrics “Y’all know how I met her, we broke up….”

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Instead of finishing the bar with “…and got back together,” Common would bring up a female fan with a French accent named Shirley to sit on stage as he serenaded her with a freestyle. Symbolising how he fell back in love with Hip-Hop, Common spit a raw, authentic freestyle that was just for Shirley and the rest of the Toronto crowd. It was absolutely epic seeing Common fill his freestyle verse with Toronto references, including the NBA Champion Toronto Raptors, Yonge Street, King Street, Yorkville, Scarborough, The Queen Elizabeth Theatre, Drake (as a shoutout, not a diss), Michie Mee, and even simple, in-the-moment things like Shirley’s accent, the fact it was a Wednesday, and a fan in the crowd holding up a deck of cards.

Feeling like a champion after that epic freestyle, Common would take it back to his golden years, sticking to songs from 2004-2005 for the next bit. He’d lean heavily on his Be album, performing “Faithful” and a dramatic, extended version of “Testify,” with the band creating a build-up during the third verse before reverting back to the beat for the fourth. They threw the fans a curve ball by opting for the same Lady Gaga sample used on Kid Cudi’s “Make Her Say (I Poke Her Face)” in place of the John Mayer sample when performing “Go.” The mashup on the beat worked beautifully and gave the classic dance single a new twist. Sticking to only performing songs produced by Kanye West for this bit, Com of course rocked his guest feature verse on Ye’s “Get ‘Em High,” which got the crowd hyped and ready for the next song.

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Next, Common would perform his latest single off of the upcoming album, “Hercules.” The Swizz Beatz production built on the hype from the previous track, and Common turned all the way up, taking a cymbal from the drum set and smashing it on the floor repeatedly after ripping through all of his verses on the song. He’d then take some time to calm down, going back to the living room chair, but this time would start spitting his verse from the Be intro as the band built up the beat and the energy around him again. Common would introduce each of his band members in between performing some less familiar songs, before closing out his set with the upbeat 2000 single, “The Light.”

The crowd cheered long and loud for an encore, and after enough build-up, Common and the band returned to the stage for a few more songs. The band played a wicked build-up for Common to jump in with “The People,” and after rocking the certified head-nodder, it would only get more epic. There would be a J Dilla tribute, as Common spoke about how the late producer showed him the beat for “Thelonius,” getting the crowd to sing along to the obscure “heyyy” sample in the loop as he performed the track. Not only that, but Common would deviate after spitting the bar in his verse “still doin’ this shit like dude in Wild Style,” getting into a breakdance and spinning on his back as the crowd cheered him on. His drummer would also get a wicked drum solo before they finished performing the song.

To follow up that epic performance, Common took it back even further, doing an improvised back-and-forth with his DJ as they performed the throwback “Resurrection,” the DJ matching Com’s adlibs with his scratching. Common would then bring back out Mumu Fresh to perform one of their songs together, and she would stay on stage and cover John Legend’s vocals as they closed out the show with an epic performance of the Grammy, Oscar, and Golden Globe award-winning song, “Glory.” The fans got energized one last time as Common turned up for his verses while Mumu Fresh did a soulful John Legend cover.

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Overall, this was an epic performance by one of the greatest emcees to ever come out of Chicago. It was my first time seeing a full headlining set by Common, and he gave the fans everything with this show. This was raw, authentic Hip-Hop from top to bottom, from the freestyles and improvisation, to the breakdancing, to the classic, culturally impactful songs performed. Some might’ve wanted to see him branch out to touch more of his extensive discography, but I loved how he leaned heavily on probably my favourite of his, Be, performing more than half of that album. I wanted to see more Finding Forever songs, but it was good to still see him perform the bare essentials. With the energy he has on this tour, Common seems poised to take the Hip-Hop world by storm again, and we’ll look forward to when the Let Love album drops.

 

 

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