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The Common touch

In hip-hop, bling is dead. Hefty gold chains and diamond-encrusted pendants the size of passports now feel as played out as brass knuckles or Timberland boots -- relics from ’90 hip-hop culture. A gentlemanly (dare we say quiet?) style has slowly been usurping rap’s brazen flashiness. And suddenly, rappers everywhere are looking like variations on one artist -- Common.

The veteran rapper, who’s also made forays into acting over the last few years (he currently costars in “Terminator Salvation”), has been working his trademark dapper look for more than a decade now. Long before Sean “Diddy” Combs and Jay-Z traded their Starter jackets for classic tuxedos, Common, nee Lonnie Rashid Lynn Jr., was experimenting with three-piece suits, cravats and argyle sweaters.

One of the pioneers of socially conscious rap, the 37-year-old has only recently ascended to household-name status, but his backdoor influence on the evolution of hip-hop style from roughneck to refined is as transparent as his deep, sonorous voice.

Not that he’d ever cop to such a claim. A highly spiritual person, Common’s an avid practitioner of humility; he says his success is “all God,” and he prays silently before digging into a plate of paella at his publicist’s West Hollywood office.

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Still, he’s glad the face of hip-hop is veering away from carats and Cristal. “I think it’s great that [bling] is gone,” he said. “That really didn’t exemplify style. It was just like, ‘I have the money to buy this.’ And that ain’t what style’s about. . . . I think good style is about having an eye for quality things and putting them together so they have a feel and integrity and flavor.”

Dressed in dark, spotless Ralph Lauren jeans, a white V-neck T-shirt and gray Nike Air Yeezy sneakers designed by his friend and sometimes co-producer Kanye West, Common looks pulled together in that effortless way that’s based on quality fits and fabrics, as opposed to look-at-me splash. He’s a fan of the classics -- white T-shirts, cashmere sweaters, basic jeans, dark suits -- and though he likes to incorporate global influences into his wardrobe, via scarves, colors or prints, the resulting ensembles are always straight-up masculine.

His style idols, Miles Davis and Malcolm X, speak to his man’s man aesthetics. “How they look was a part of who they were, which I like,” he said. “Miles had a funk to his style, but it was sharp and progressive. Malcolm X . . . had a clean look, but there was something about his glasses and his goatee that was interesting.”

Common’s facial hair -- which varies from little more than a goatee to a full, bushy beard -- is equally signature. “I couldn’t grow no hair up top, so this is the only way I could really show my hair style,” he said with a grin. “I really dig it. I love getting to switch it up when I do movies. I had to have these really big chops for ‘American Gangster.’ ”

The actor-rapper’s daily garb usually consists of “a fashionable T-shirt -- something that’s expressing what I’m feeling, maybe through words or color,” a fitted leather jacket and stylish sneakers or casual boots, often by Alexander McQueen. For night, he favors “a nice slick shirt” (usually from Paul Smith), a tie and a cardigan paired with jeans. “I like mixing it up,” he said. “Sometimes I like something on top that feels dressy, then something casual on the bottom.”

Newsboy caps are his chapeau of choice -- a look inspired by ‘70s soul singer Donny Hathaway and “some of the old jazz dudes,” he said. Common even designs his own line of caps, Soji, which is currently being retooled and working toward a 2010 relaunch.

When it comes to suits, he favors Gucci, and recently rocked a Calvin Klein tux that “I just felt good in,” but he’s hesitant to name-check designers -- a rarity in the label-mongering rap world.

“I really don’t get into designers like, ‘This designer is the one for me.’ I just really am like, ‘Oh, that looks good.’ When I go into the store, I don’t just check out one brand. There’s good stuff everywhere. You gotta try things. You gotta be courageous.” (He has the help of stylist Yvette Sanchez for special events, but he does shop for himself on rare occasions, at Barneys New York and swanky sunglasses boutique Dita.)

Just don’t ask him to don that ubiquitous man-brand Ed Hardy. “I hate to say it, but when people who don’t have style start wearing something, it kind of drags that something down a little bit,” he said. Wearing limited-edition pieces or obscure brands “is almost like having a woman in your life who hasn’t been all over town.”

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Tall and slim, with a meticulously muscled, deep-V-shaped silhouette -- the kind that takes plenty of pain to gain -- Common boasts movie-star looks, which have lured casting agents and fashion companies alike.

The Chicago native, who released his eighth album, “Universal Mind Control,” in December, has been featured in ad campaigns for the Gap and Converse, and is currently the face of Diesel’s new men’s fragrance, Only the Brave.

He considers commercials good practice for his acting career, which has eclipsed music in the last few years as his professional priority. “I’m praying and believing that I’m gonna have a career as an actor,” he added, “and have music surrounding that.”

Under Hollywood’s critical lens, Common has been contemplating his image more deeply these days. “I think I do focus on it more,” he said. “When I was rapping, my mother used to say, ‘You need to lift your hat up so people can see your face.’ And I was like ‘Look, don’t nobody care about that -- they just want some good music, some music that’s knockin’. But in films . . . it’s more important. So I want to look good, I want to feel good. But most importantly, as an actor, I want to be good.”

The dapper rapper -- who’s currently single, but has dated Erykah Badu, Taraji P. Henson and Serena Williams -- will also have fashion in the mix.

In addition to Soji, he’s collaborated on a line of hip graphic T-shirts with Microsoft that debuted in December. “They contacted me and said they wanted me to design some T-shirts that revolve around hip-hop and 1985, which is when Microsoft Windows was introduced,” Common said. “It was kinda fun.”

The tees, which borrow fonts and other now-quirky aesthetics from early computers, feel ‘80s without delving into all-out-neon cliches (they’re not sold in any L.A. stores yet, but can be ordered from various retailers listed on the website www.micro soft.com/windows/softwearbymicrosoft/).

A full-blown Common clothing label may, at some point, follow. “We were thinking of doing a ‘waist-up’ line -- belts and shirts and accessories,” he said. “And since working with Diesel, I’m interested in [fragrance] too.”

Whatever style niche he decides to mine, it will likely follow his credo of “standing out naturally.” In other words, looking good without trying too hard.

“Even in the early days, when I was wearing sweat suits and athletic clothes, I never wanted to wear something just to wear it,” he said. “I wanted you to see me in a crowd and know that I had something different on my mind.”

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evesilind@gmail.com


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