Actor Common returns to his hip-hop roots

Common was trying not to crack a smile. The rapper-turned-actor-turned-author was in the midst of having his face powdered in preparation for an interview with a cable music channel. He had just been asked if he'd ever made any money off album sales.

"Naw," he said, doing his best to keep a straight face. "I never made a lot of money from album sales."

It's not for lack of trying. Common's first album for Warner Bros., "The Dreamer/The Believer," was released Tuesday, and it follows five albums released under various Universal Music Group brands that have collectively sold 2.9 million in the U.S., according to Nielsen SoundScan.

"My album sales are good," continued Common, born Lonnie Rashid Lynn Jr. on Chicago's South Side almost 40 years ago. "I'm not taking anything away from them. But when you sell 5 million of your albums, that's when you're seeing money. You won't make your money off of record sales. You make it off of branding and other opportunities, if you're afforded those."

Movies, TV, books

It's safe to say that Common has been. The former Gap model has multiple films in the pipeline, including a trip to Sundance for the coming indie film "LUV" and a role alongside Jennifer Garner in next year's "The Odd Life of Timothy Green."

He will soon have completed a starring role on the first season of AMC's post-Civil War drama "Hell on Wheels," and he's written an autobiography, "One Day It'll All Make Sense," and a children's book, "I Like You but I Love Me."

Somehow, amid all the above, Common found the time to return to hip-hop. The completed album, "The Dreamer/The Believer," backs away from the studio gloss of 2008's "Universal Mind Control" and returns to his wordy, socially aware roots.

"It's an album about putting out music for the love of it, and I think that's the tone of the album," Common said. "It's now not my only source of expression, and it's also not my only way to make a living. I do this because I love it, and I owe it to the culture that helped me live my life and gave me a voice."

'A dignity to him'

Common isn't leaving much to chance. Earlier on that late December day, the artist was getting ready for a mid-afternoon taping of Chelsea Handler's E! talk show, "Chelsea Lately." A dressing room debate as to whether to wear a sweater or a black jacket would last longer than the interview with Handler. When it was call time, Common gathered everyone around the dressing room for a prayer of thanks.

"There's something about his presence," said Joe Gayton, creator, writer and executive producer of "Hell on Wheels." "He has a dignity to him."

Still, Fox News labeled him "vile" in a headline last spring. The network's talk show host Sean Hannity called attention to some of Common's more politically minded raps after the artist was invited to the White House to perform at the Michelle Obama-hosted "An Evening of Poetry."

Common, who attended the reading despite the scrutiny, said, "I was super-nervous. I didn't know what they'd be thinking. My heart was beating out of my chest."

Earlier this week, it looked as if Common would face another attack after the New York Post reported that esteemed poet Maya Angelou, whose work is sampled on the new album, was "horrified" at some of the language on the CD. But the hullabaloo lasted all of 24 hours before Angelou publicly declared Common a "genius."

"I believed that was an impeccable way to introduce my album," he said.

At their best, Common's songs seem to reference '70s soul rather than the grit of underground rap. To be sure, new songs such as "Ghetto Dreams" may have some calling for explicit content stickers, but his tales of street life are character portraits about perseverance rather than dramatic glorifications.

"If you have a microphone, you can help people," Common said.