Common :: Black America AgainARTium Recordings/Def JamAuthor: Steve 'Flash' JuonLonnie Rashid Lynn and I go back a long way. Not personally mind you - I've never met the man one on one - but I did drive all the way to Chicago in college just to see him perform at the Metro (and drove back in a literal blizzard to boot). There aren't that many rappers I would entertain a six hour+ drive for, then or now, let alone on a broke-ass college student's budget.
Since its inception, hip-hop culture has expressed the struggles, thoughts, fears and celebrations of Black and Latino communities, achieving a sense of unity amongst different corners of society. As his 11th studio album — a number largely associated with balance and unity — Common's Black America Again will please listeners new and old as it bounces back and force between the shining soul of albums like Resurrection while tapping into to themes threaded throughout Like Water For Chocolate and Be. Although the sombre elements of Common's 2014 Nobody's Smiling resonate throughout the album, Black America Again presents the veteran Chicago rapper as a soldier fighting for freedom in a present-day socio-political war.
Thematically and structurally, "Black America Again" distills the essence of its parent release like few other pre-album singles. Filled with love, grief, and rage, Common traces institutionalized racism back to Christopher Columbus and covers many of the after effects, from slavery to police shootings, from housing projects to gentrification. Karriem Riggins, the veteran multi-instrumentalist and producer who contributed to Common's 1997-2007 run, potently layers live instrumentation -- Robert Glasper's leading piano, Esperanza Spalding's melodic bass, J-Rocc's percussive scratches -- with an array of samples that includes a propelling breakbeat and an empowering James Brown monologue.
Much like Nas is to New York or Outkast to Atlanta, Common (a.k.a Lonnie Rashid Lynn Jr.) is the elder statesman of Chicago. Predecessor Nobody’s Smiling was his message to his city. The result was a dark, somber record reflective of the problems that had and continue to blight Chicago. Black America Again is similarly a product of its time, reflective of the Black Lives Matter movement, police brutality and an election that has left America divided.
Compared to Eminem’s remarkable but wearying Campaign Speech, the song Black America Again is rap’s outstanding call to arms of election month. There’s a comforting 90s feel to its parent album, with the return of Common’s producer, NoID, and several hat-tips to fellow vets such as Public Enemy and Tribe, but the lyrics are all America 2016. Although there’s no hit to rival the Selma soundtrack epic, Glory, and a reunion with its vocalist John Legend is the worst of furrowed-brow, gluten-free beat poetry, this is intelligent, impressive work, breaking down complex issues rhyme by rhyme.
At 11 albums strong, Common’s career has passed through so many stages that he’s got a trail of shed skins, including two or three different rappers (and half a rockstar) along the way. So when his later-period albums, from 2014’s tough and sorrowful Nobody’s Smiling to this week’s striking Black America Again, are called a return to form for the Chicago-bred MC, it may be important to clarify which form he’s returning to, and establish some signposts for hearing an album as momentous as this one is. Back in 2014, Common’s frequent collaborator Questlove called for a revival of protest music in the wake of a grand jury’s decision not to indict the police officer who killed Eric Garner.
At 44, Common is better known as a Hollywood actor these days than he is a hip-hop artist. But he's influenced two generations of Chicago MCs — in many ways he made Kanye West and Chance the Rapper possible — and in recent years he's re-emerged not just as an "elder statesman" of socially and politically conscious rap, but as a still-vital practitioner. It wasn't always so.
On November 9th, the day after Donald Trump won the American presidency and turned the United States into a four-year Black Mirror special episode, I needed something to restore some sense of purpose during my zombified walk around downtown Chicago. I was scarcely able to avoid the ominous, shadow of the Trump International Tower, and the collective fatigue of such an unexpected outcome made each step feel like its own marathon. Common’s Black America Again was the only logical choice.
Common’s latest album, Black America Again, couldn’t have come at a more crucial time. With Donald Trump elected president, Black America and many minorities aren’t supporting the new Commander-in-Chief and his racist rhetoric, which makes much of the progress that got the Obama administration in power feel completely reversed. Rappers like Common have campaigned tirelessly for real political and social change but until Kanye West runs in 2020, we might be stuck in a proverbial rut.
A weekly round-up of must-hear music from The Times staffers. This week’s picks include the latest from politically aware hip-hop star Common as well as a solo debut from a member of the Strokes. CRX, ‘New Skin’ (Columbia). This is a modal window..