How Kanye West Interpolates Common's I Used to Love H.E.R. in Homecoming
If you're a Kanye West fan, then the opening lines of Common's first verse of I Used to Love H.E.R. should sound familiar:
I met this girl when I was 10 years old
And what I loved most, she had so much soul
Kanye clearly idolized the legendary Chicago rapper during his early years—Kanye featured Common on Get Em High, produced his album Be, nodded to 1-9-9-9 on Gone, reappropriated a Common beat on Everything I Am, and, of course, interpolated the aforementioned song for Homecoming:
I met this girl when I was three years old
And what I loved most, she had so much soul
At the end of Homecoming, Kanye reveals that the "girl" featured in the song is, in fact, Chicago herself. And Common actually closes out his song very similarly, but with a slight twist:
But I'ma take her back, hopin' that the shit stop
‘Cause who I'm talkin' about, y'all, is hip-hop
While Homecoming details Kanye's history and love for Chicago, I Used to Love H.E.R. details Common's history and love—and eventual fallout—with hip hop. Both stories feature many beats and tropes found in coming-of-age tales (think Stand By Me, Great Expectations, Sixteen Candles), but each artist takes a very different direction tonally during the finale.
On I Used to Love H.E.R. Verse 1 starts out with Common as an impressionable youth being shaped by hip hop:
She was there for me, and I was there for her
Pull out a chair for her, turn on the air for her
And just cool out, cool out, and listen to her
Sittin' on a bone, wishin' that I could do her
Eventually if it was meant to be, then it would be
‘Cause we related, physically and mentally
From there, Common and hip hop grow older, grow closer...and drift apart.
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 expandin', so why should I stand in her way?
She probably get her money in L.A.
A lot of this should, once again, sound familiar. Except I Used to Love H.E.R. doesn't just apply to Homecoming in this case—it applies to the entirety of Graduation.
While The College Dropout and Late Registration were more of conceptual albums with running themes, Graduation is Kanye's first stab at a narrative album. That means, from start to finish, Kanye is telling a specific story. That makes Homecoming not just a standalone song about Chicago, but instead the cap to a coming-of-age tale that features Kanye being championed in Chicago, then moving out into the world, then succumbing to the pressures of celebrity, then overcoming the ego and finding himself...and then, finally, returning home to try and reignite a faded relationship with his beloved city.
Throughout Kanye's career, you'll see that he conflates fame with romance. Oftentimes, when he's talking about a "girl," he's talking about a fame—but on Graduation, we see his rise in fame coincides with his deteriorating relationship with a "girl" (aka Chicago).
On the first three tracks of Graduation, we see Kanye's ego at gargantuan levels. He's revered in Chicago (a "Champion," you could say) and can have any girl he wants on Stronger.
That self-confidence drives him to venture out into the world, which leads to a metaphorical "break-up" with Chicago on I Wonder. Kanye first thinks about all the good he can do for Chicago by leaving...
A psychic read my lifeline
Told me in my lifetime
My name would help light up the Chicago skyline
And that's why I'm
Seven o'clock, that's primetime
Heaven'll watch, God calling from the hotlines
Why he keep giving me hot lines?
I'm a star, how could I not shine?
...and then, it seems, actually have "the talk" with Chicago before heading out:
What you about?
On that independent shit
Trade it all for a husband and some kids
You ever wonder what it all really mean?
You wonder if you’ll ever find your dreams?
From there, it's no surprise that, on this narrative album, Kanye then leaves Chicago and ventures out into the world on Good Life:
The good life, it feel like Atlanta
It feel like L.A., it feel like Miami
It feel like N.Y., summertime Chi
But out in the world, away from the city that shaped him, we see Kanye being alienated, falling victim to his ego, and surrendering to temptation. On Can't Tell Me Nothing, it's him against the world; on Barry Bonds, he churns out hits just to make money; on Drunk & Hot Girls...he loves drunk and hot girls; and on Flashing Lights, he's overwhelmed by paparazzi. Once Kanye leaves Chicago, celebrity ain't all it's cracked up to be.
And Kanye is clearly self-aware of that. During this portion of the album, he subtly recalls the "girl" he broke up with on I Wonder. On Can't Tell Me Nothing, when he's feeling consumed by celebrity and self-conscious about all the money he's wasting on jewelry and clothes, he thinks:
The drama, people suing me
I'm on TV talking like it's just you and me
And on Flashing Lights, Kanye starts off the song talking about a superficial relationship with a girl before getting a call from someone mysterious...
I get a call like, "Where are you, Yeezy?"
And try to hit you with the ol-wu-wopte
'Til I got flashed by the paparazzi
With this and Drunk & Hot Girls, Kanye juxtaposes the meaningful relationship he had with his girl back home with the girls in his new life. Suddenly, what once felt empowering in Chicago becomes hollow and draining away from home.
This all leads to Homecoming, where Kanye must close out the coming-of-age tale. This is where he shifts away from Common tonally, as Common ends I Used to Love H.E.R. with:
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
Common is bitter about the direction hip hop took. Hip hop sold itself out, ran with a new crew, changed everything about itself...kinda like Kanye did when he moved away from Chicago.
And that's the grand point we're trying to make: Homecoming doesn't interpolate I Used to Love H.E.R.—the entirety of Graduation does. While Common shames hip hop for what it's become, Kanye recognizes his role in his regressed relationship with Chicago. Staying in Chicago wouldn't have allowed Kanye to become the superstar he wanted to be—but Kanye also abandoned everything Chicago taught him when he gave into the temptations of fame.
With this in mind, it makes sense that Common closes out I Used to Love H.E.R. waiting for hip hop to return to its roots—and it makes sense that Kanye closes out Homecoming embracing a crowd in Chicago, trying to respark an old flame:
Every interview I'm representin' you, makin' you proud
Reach for the stars, so if you fall, you land on a cloud
Jump in the crowd, spark your lighters, wave 'em around
If you don't know by now, I'm talkin' 'bout Chi-Town