Release Date: Jul 22, 2014
Record label: Def Jam
Genre(s): Rap, Alternative Rap, Hardcore Rap, Midwest Rap
In the 20 years since the release of Common's 1994 album Resurrection, the rapper has become a rare transcendent figure in hip-hop. He's walked the tightrope from the underground to the mainstream, from Chicago's slums to Hollywood's red carpets, and his music has evolved for better and worse with his rising celebrity. His last album, the socially conscious, if slightly sanctimonious, The Dreamer/The Believer, was a much needed return to form after Universal Mind Control, the middle-aged rapper's regrettable experiment in techno-party rap.
In the last few years, Chicago-bred, New York-based rapper Common's acting career has become his main hustle. His latest - entirely produced by long-time collaborator No I.D. - reveals an enlivened emcee, the same forceful voice who gave us classic albums such as Be and Like Water For Chocolate. On Nobody's Smiling, a reference to the Chi's gang violence epidemic, Common goes out of his way to incorporate that city's new era of street rappers.
Common :: Nobody's SmilingARTium/Def JamAuthor: Steve 'Flash' JuonThe title of Common's latest offering "Nobody's Smiling" immediately evokes memories of Eric B. & Rakim's "In the Ghetto" for me. The interludes and scratches Eric put between the verses used that single phrase from R over and over again, and burned it into my brain as surely as if you had cracked open my skull and etched the line with a laser.
On his tenth album, Common chooses to focus on his Chicago hometown, a city that has been beset by increasing violence over the past few years. Producer (and now label executive) No I.D., the main sound provider who crafted Common's first three albums, returns to that primary role here.However, given the subject matter and album title, the jazzy soundscapes and free associative rhymes that marked those releases are jettisoned in favour of sombre narratives and foreboding ambience. Indeed, on a couple of tracks, No I.D.'s music exhibits the full-circle influence of his mentee Kanye West (who piloted Be, Common's 2005 return to form) and his penchant for reverb-heavy codas.
Common noted that this album's title references Eric B. & Rakim's "In the Ghetto" -- more specifically, the song's recurring sample from the duo's "I Ain't No Joke." More symbolic, if beneath the surface, is the use of Curtis Mayfield's grim and pointed "The Other Side of Town" on album opener "The Neighborhood." While Nobody's Smiling was inspired by the tragic condition of Common's hometown of Chicago, its incorporation of a relevant-as-ever song from 1970, recorded by a Chicagoan in Chicago, is an acknowledgment of how inner-city struggles are a constant, not a trend. The rapper/actor's geographic and economic distance can be cited as a reason to approach Nobody's Smiling with a cocked brow.
On his 10th album, Common focuses on his home town of Chicago. Not so much of a love letter, Nobody's Smiling is more of a state of the city address in which he tries to make sense of the violence that has earned the city its "Chiraq" nickname. Fellow Chicagoan (and the man who showed Chi-town's Kanye West his way around a mixing desk) No ID produces, and indeed the same distortion-is-king technique from Yeezus is all over Nobody's Smiling, with Common's verbose verses dovetailing nicely with productions that are at times more like techno than hip-hop.
Common exists in sainted territory in hip-hop: the rare rapper who's appeared on "Oprah", he's earned a default level of respect and can reliably release major label albums every few years, no matter what the industry climate. For many, Common's latest album, Nobody's Smiling, will hold a polarized position in the midst of Chicago's senseless violence, a symbol of all that is right in a genre too often derided for moral depravity and/or artistic bankruptcy. Others will cynically dismiss this latest effort, as Common hasn't lived in Chicago in years but is releasing a record capitalizing on the city's newly gritty national reputation.
Chicago is rap’s cultural hub in 2014. The city is the home of the genre’s biggest megastar (Kanye), a sage-like voice of reason (Common), and it is abuzz with young upstarts making their presence felt in a plethora of unique ways. Regardless of the method of self-expression you consult, whether it’s the brash, raucous street garble of Keef or the stringy, often cautious stream-of-consciousness of Chance, there is always a larger, sociopolitical elephant in the room.
Something strange happened to hip-hop in the past decade: the genre's most conscious artists, once considered incendiary, somehow became legacy artists. In that process, most of them lost their foundation-threatening cachet and became a strangely omnipresent part of the establishment. You'll see Common more often looking imposing and world-weary in Hollywood flicks than dealing eviscerating lyrical blows or ecstatic treatises.
The last time Common released an album, back in 2011, he got tangled up in a halfhearted beef with Drake. This time he's not making the same mistake: Nobody's Smiling, again produced by old Chi-town friend No I.D., features plenty of younger artists – check rising Cali rapper Vince Staples' blunted musings on the gospel-laced "Kingdom." More important, it has some of Com's tightest storytelling in years. If the bittersweet memory-lane stroll he takes on "Rewind That" doesn't move you even a little, you might be heartless.
It might be some kind of lèse-majesté to say so, but it can be hard taking Common at his word these days. As the conscious rapper par excellence, Lonnie Rashid Lynn, Jr. has made streetwise candor both his style and his ethos, and has enjoyed a unique faith in his integrity as a result. Absurd brouhaha aside, would any other currently active hip-hop performer get invited to read poetry at the White House? His magnetic flow and impeccable taste in crate-digger collaborators—nowhere more evident than on the career high-watermarks Like Water for Chocolate and Be in 2000 and 2005, respectively—has surely played no small part in building that trust.
In a wordy yet clever verse from her 2011 song “Live Up,” rapper Jean Grae detailed the inherent tensions that characterize being a rapper: “My person is the person in the verses’ stories/VS the person in the first-person stories/VS the person to disperse the stories. ” As the author, subject and performer of her work, Jean has an intensified relationship with her music because in a very real sense, she is her music. This disposition of one’s art being one’s life is not unique to rappers or even musicians in general, but in rap it is a badge of honor: the best rappers, it is believed, are the most forthright, the most authentic.
“A black figure…in the middle with chaos and gunfire…the beast is runnin’ rampant.” Those are words Common rapped on “Chi-City,” a song off his 2005 album Be. That album, now considered by some to be one of the few hip-hop classics of the 2000s (XXL gave it its highest rating), was a detailed account of life on the city’s South Side, where Com grew up. When you listen to it, you can’t help but envision yourself riding in a “Olds with windows that don’t roll” through one of the area’s battered neighborhoods, watching OGs tell tales on the corner over barrels of fire.
Public Image Limited told us anger is an energy, and that holds true for the veteran MC Common, who channels his rage at the violent troubles in his home city of Chicago with this intensely introspective new record. It’s a return to Common’s social-observer roots as he’s helped by producer No I.D., who provides an expansive sonic canvas for the MC to paint his bleak portraits of a city in distress. Although “The Neighborhood,” “Nobody’s Smiling” (with beats echoing gunshots), and the gospel-infused “Kingdom” are Chicago-specific, Common clearly suggests that the nihilism and chaos reverberate nationally.
Common takes a hard look at his hometown on his 10th album, “Nobody’s Smiling. ” The place is Chicago, and the news is far from good. On the title track, rapping against an ominous hum of trap synths, he wastes little breath before setting the scene of a skirmish with the police, or other opposition: Where the chief and the president come from Pop out, pop pills, pop guns On the deck when the ops come Pop some Ops run Moving on, Common apprises the pull of cold currency and the desperate actions taken to pursue it.
Common has always had a problem staying on the right side of the line between “conscious” and preachy—even on his classic albums, he threatens to go from being concerned with social and political issues to letting them drain his music of any real vitality. Nobody’s Smiling—a Common record in 2014 about Chicago’s gun violence problem—falls deep into that trap, turning in a collection of mostly forgettable tracks that tries far too hard and has little to show for it. It’s not as if Common doesn’t have a reason to care about the issue, though: The Common Ground Foundation has been working with the city’s youth since 2011, a few years before it became fashionable for large media outlets to treat the South Side like a zoo.