ALBUM: Nobody’s Smiling
Nobody’s Smiling, Common’s tenth album, is his first on Def Jam. Perhaps more significantly, it was released as a joint venture with Artium, the imprint run by longtime friend and collaborator Dion “No I.D.” Wilson. The two met in fourth grade on the infamous South side, and had already been running together for a decade when they made the seminal Resurrection—a record that will turn twenty this fall. From there, Common’s career saw a strange ebb and flow, the pendulum swinging from critical and popular consensus (Like Water for Chocolate) to the divisively avant garde (Electric Circus) and back again (Be). But it was Resurrection that cemented Common as revered fixture in underground circles, the product of two superlatively talented twentysomethings conspiring together. Now, twenty years later, things are different.
Stony Island Ave is no longer the only dividing line that matters. In addition to heading up Artium, No I.D. is an Executive Vice President at Def Jam, and one of the most in-demand producers in rap and R&B. Common, of course, can be seen on screen alongside a litany of Hollywood A-listers, or at his current gig on AMC’s Reconstruction-era drama Hell on Wheels. In the latter, he plays Elam Ferguson, a freed slave who finds himself working for Union Pacific to build the First Transcontinental Railroad. Basically, Lonnie Lynn, Jr. is a long way from 89th and Bennett. But you can always come home again. Nobody’s Smiling is a bold, urgent album: Common and No I.D. are back to save Chicago.
To take even a cursory glance at Chicago—all of Chicago, not just the parts one finds comfortable—is to confront a heavy albatross. No discussion of the city’s rash of talented young rappers can escape uncomfortable questions about the astronomical murder rates, and whether the music is culpable in perpetuating that violence. The counter argument, of course, is that even the most murderous rap is something akin to reportage, and stamping it out would merely hide the symptoms while the illness festers. Rather than drawing lines in the sand, Common is committed to a dialogue, to solutions: “All those people represent where I come from. We know what this city is—the struggles it has, but also the beauties.” He pauses. “We want to really figure out how to improve peoples’ lives.”
Before the record is mischaracterized, let me be clear—Nobody’s Smiling is more than just a vehicle for the sociopolitical. In fact, there are long stretches where that doesn’t even feel like its primary goal. Common sounds hungrier than he has in years, dexterous and even mean at points. (On the urgent “No Fear” Com raps “Know the smell of good pussy and the sound of the Tec.”) For the most part, Nobody’s Smiling eschews reflection and self-exploration for stark portraits, preferring to deal in the present tense. Furthermore, the people Common uses to populate his Chicago are archetypes, with basic pronouns in place of names and identifying details. Perhaps the most impressive part of his writing on the album is that this doesn’t come at the expense of depth or agency for the characters. Rather, the audience is free to find-and-replace the names and faces of their friends, their adversaries, or themselves as they see fit.
On the other side of the boards, No I.D. is pushing forward, expertly but never cautiously. The beats on Nobody’s Smiling are generally percussive and kinetic, saving the warm glow of 2011’s The Dreamer/The Believer for a select few moments. “It wasn’t really the goal to make it sound modern,” the producer explains, “that was just the result.” And it was—the record is undeniably current in its sonic leanings, but in a testament to both No I.D.’s judgment and to Common’s focus, it never reads as cloying or desperate. In fact, it isn’t a stretch to imagine a new generation of Common fans digesting this as definitive, only to be jarred when they stumble onto the Soulquarians-era work. Throughout the lean ten-song set, the rapper is able to move nimbly from describing hustling scenarios to heartfelt cries for change, and it sounds for the most part like second nature.
“You created me from dust, that’s why I did dirt.”