On October 25th, 1994 Common (then known as Common Sense) released his second album, Resurrection. As its 20th anniversary approaches, we’re going to explore and run a lyric analysis on the album’s standout track, a true classic, the No I.D. produced ‘I Used To Love H.E.R.’ Any true Hip Hop fan knows that in this track Common raps about his attraction to and experiences with a woman from his youth with whom he grew up. He talks about her progression over the years and how his feelings for her, though rooted in love throughout, changed as she went through different phases in her life. He introduces the relationship by rapping, “I met this girl when I was ten years old, and what I loved most, she had so much soul. She was old school, when I was just a shorty. Never knew throughout my life she would be there for me.” He goes on to highlight her purity by saying that this girl was “not about the money, no studs was mic checkin’ her.” Later in the track, Common explains that his love interest “didn’t have a body but she started gettin’ thick quick. Did a couple of videos and became afrocentric. Out goes the weave, in goes the braids beads medallions. She was on that tip about, stoppin’ the violence.”
At this point in the track, Common approaches the woman and expresses joy in her responding favorably to him, but that excitement would be short-lived. Not only did his love interest move away, her demeanor and outlook on life changed in a way that didn’t sit well with Common. It’s at this point in the track that we’ll pick up our lyric analysis, but before doing so, for those unfamiliar with the song and who may not have yet figured it out, the woman in the track is actually a metaphor for Hip Hop itself, as Common reveals in the very last lyric of the song (“‘cause who I’m talkin’ ’bout, y’all, is Hip Hop“). The word ‘her’ is purposely acronymed (H.E.R.) in the track’s title. While only Common himself can tell us for what exactly each letter stands, the two most common (pun intended) suggestions are Hiphop in its Essence is Real (which works, but it’s too wordy for a 3 letter acronym in my book), and my preference, Hearing Every Rhyme, as in I Used to Love Hearing Every Rhyme. That second theory to me makes the most sense to me as it both rolls off the tongue and reads much more smoothly than the first suggestion. That said, our lyric analysis will focus on the following lines from the second verse:
She dug my rap, that’s how we got close
But then she broke to the West Coast, and that was cool
Cause around the same time, I went away to school
And I’m a man of expanding, so why should I stand in her way
She probably get her money in L.A.
And she did stud, she got big pub but what was foul
She said that the pro-black, was goin’ out of style
She said, afrocentricity, was of the past
So she got into R&B hip-house bass and jazz
Now black music is black music and it’s all good
I wasn’t salty, she was with the boys in the hood
These lyrics stand out to me for two reasons. Firstly, they serve to progress the storyline of Common noticing that the love of his life was changing, and not necessarily in a way that agreed with him. Having established that Common is actually talking about Hip Hop, it’s important to note that despite his best efforts to toe the line and not upset any Rap demographic (namely, the West Coast, more on this shortly), he clearly wasn’t a fan of Hip Hop abandoning her revolutionary ways. Before elaborating on this, let’s remember that this track was released in 1994, at which point Common was 22 years old.
He makes metaphorical allusions to 80s Rap in the first verse as he sets up the song’s narrative. “I respected her, she hit me in the heart. A few New York niggas, had did her in the park. But she was there for me.” 80s Rap was predominantly New York based, and particularly in the early to middle part of the decade, block parties at local parks were a huge part of Hip Hop’s development, as DJs and Emcees alike would go showcase their skills with the intent to rock the crowd. He closes the first verse by saying Hip Hop was, “fresh yo, when she was underground, original, pure untampered and down sister.” In Common’s eyes, New York based 80’s Rap was “pure.” By contrast however, our lyrics of choice suggest that Common thought it “foul” that Hip Hop “said pro-black was goin’ out of style” once she started getting “her money in LA.” Remember, in 1994, Rap’s dominant content had shifted from self-empowering, politically charged, community building themes represented by the likes of New Jersey’s Queen Latifah, New York’s K.R.S. One, and New York’s Public Enemy (among others of course) to the Gangsta/Reality Rap motifs prevalent in the music of many West Coast standouts like Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, and Ice Cube.
Common is an intelligent guy who composes his lyrics carefully, and even at 22 years old he tried to be politically correct about how to convey his frustrations with Hip Hop at the time. For example, when he says “now black music is black music and it’s all good. I wasn’t salty she was with the boys in the hood,” he’s trying to not piss off any Gangsta Rap fans and more importantly, any Gangsta rappers. At day’s end however, especially given that the third verse of the track is filled with references about Hip Hop going hardcore gangsta and how he liked H.E.R. better beforehand, it’s hard not to interpret our focus lyrics as a slight to the West Coast. To expand on this notion, in verse three Common says that Hip Hop is “on some dumb shit, when she comes to the city talkin’ about poppin’ glocks servin’ rocks and hittin’ switches. Now she’s a gangsta rollin’ with gangsta bitches. Always smokin’ blunts and gettin’ drunk, tellin’ me sad stories. Now she only fucks with the funk. Stressin’ how hardcore and real she is. She was really the realest, before she got into showbiz.” Again, despite his best lyrical efforts to quell the notion that the West Coast took Hip Hop’s innocence, it’s difficult to listen to the second and third verses and not deduce that.
That brings us to the second reason our choice lyrics, and really the notion that in Common’s eyes California’s influence was the catalyst for Hip Hop becoming wild and nihilistic, stand out to me. Always one to wave the West Coast flag, Ice Cube took offense to Common’s sentiment and along with his Westside Connection cohorts released a dis record called, ‘Westside Slaughterhouse’, a pro-West track on which Ice Cube viciously spits, “all you suckas want to dis the Pacific, but you buster niggas never get specific. Used to love her, mad cause we fucked her. Pussy whipped bitch with no Common Sense. Hip Hop started in the West! Ice Cube bailin’ through the East without a vest.” Given Common’s narrative on ‘I Used To Leave H.E.R.’ and especially considering that he used the phrase “boys in the hood“, it’s understandable that Ice Cube would react. Cube did star in the motion picture, ‘Boyz N The Hood’ after all. That said, I’ve always been a big Ice Cube fan and I enjoy this track, but his proclamation that Hip Hop started in the West was a bit too much for even the most supportive Cube enthusiast.
My main point however is that though Common really did try to not irk anyone on ‘I Used To Love H.E.R.’, clearly he failed. And to be fair, it’s understandable. Again, how do you listen to those verses on ‘I Used To Love H.E.R.’ and not come away at least wondering whether or not Common was taking shots at the West? The end result of all this? Common would go on to release, ‘The Bitch In Yoo’, a clever, hardcore in its own right record that gave him a clear victory in the battle with Ice Cube. Thankfully however, the two would later make amends as both participated in Minister Louis Farrakhan’s Hip Hop Summit in 1997 which was aimed at tempering Hip Hop’s violent direction in the wake of the Tupac and Biggie murders.
The fact that Ice Cube and Common could trade jabs within the context of the mid-90s East Coast vs. West Coast beef and ultimately allow cooler heads to prevail was a major victory for Hip Hop and both men deserve credit for this. It showed impressionable Hip Hop Nation youths that though Hip Hop is a competitive sport, battles don’t have to end tragically. From my standpoint, this more than anything is why Common’s lyrics on ‘I Used To Love H.E.R.’ are noteworthy.
His intentions weren’t to start a feud with Ice Cube, but it happened, and the bi-product of the beef that resonates most in my eyes is not either of the dis tracks (though they’re both pretty dope), but rather the reconciliation between two of Rap’s most influential artists. The groundwork for having a heated battle and subsequently squashing the beef peacefully was laid well before Cube and Common (MC Shan vs. K.R.S. One as well as Kool Moe Dee vs. LL Cool J come to mind), but with Hip Hop’s popularity soaring in the 90s, that these two men were able to end their feud without incident carried extra meaning. Let’s not forget that Jay-Z and Nas would have a much more personal, more drawn out, and larger scale battle in the early 2000s and eventually reconciled amicably as well. Would Hip Hop have learned this valuable lesson had Cube and Common remained enemies? I hope so, but at day’s end Cube and Common set the tone, and for that we in the Hip Hop community should be thankful.