Common - Nobody’s Smiling

Common's 'Nobody's Smiling' Album Cover Common's 'Nobody's Smiling' Album Cover
Paul Thompson reviews the Chicago legend’s tenth studio LP.

Additional Info

8.0

ALBUM: Nobody’s Smiling

ARTIST: Common

2014

Hip-Hop/Rap

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.”

1. The Neighborhood
Chicago today boasts some of rap’s most exciting young talent, and it wouldn’t be outrageous to think an elder statesman would want to steer clear. Instead, Common reached out to Lil Herb precisely so their ages could contrast one another—a bold choice, and one that pays off in spades. Common strikes the perfect tone to open the album: there are all the worries that come with living in one of the country’s worst ghettos, then the simple act of rolling a blunt to punctuate the hopelessness. Herb’s verse drives home the same points in the first person.8.5
2. No Fear
“Jordan Airs, he got at least seven pairs.” “No Fear” is bleak if nothing else. That’s for the best—Common is rapping like a man half his age, taking the song’s faceless subject and filling him with the vitriol that the elder statesman sees in his hometown, to the point where the priest don’t even want none. No I.D.’s beat (the kick makes it sound like a heartbeat) is lean and percussive, so when Com flips the famous Big line (“Living life with no fear, putting that truth in my baby girl’s ear”), it sounds apocalyptic. Halfway through the track, he breaks the fourth wall, and to great effect; in six-and-a-half minutes, Common reasserts himself as a vital voice.8.5
3. Diamonds
One has to suppose that this is what Big Sean is for. If the aggressively mediocre GOOD Music accessory needs to pop up somewhere, it might as well be here: A rote hook about “champagne poppin’”. Fortunately, Sean is innocuous at best. On the other hand, this isn’t Com’s strongest outing on Nobody’s Smiling, with some of the most flaccid wordplay on the record: “Niggas gotta eat—we gon’ do it gourmet/I’m hearing fucking voices, like when porn play”; “My bars are my PR like Puerto Rico”, etc. For his part, though, No I.D. makes a compelling case for minor chords in the club. The beats on Nobody’s Smiling are stunningly cohesive, but never get repetitive; the big-money feature on the A-side single somehow feel part of something much bigger. To his credit, Com picks up some slack in the second half: “I done seen Len Bias—that shit scared me.”6.5
4. Blak Majik
It would be tempting to take “Niggas seen Badu’s ass and said ‘I seen what you was on’” as a larger commentary on Common’s career trajectory. In reality, it’s probably not—but isn’t that kind of the point? “Blak Majik”, like the rest of Nobody’s Smiling, is obsessed with the present tense and the fallout thereof. So when Com raps “I don’t play away games; I got hitters at home”, the threat cuts through the Gap ads and the rom-coms: his id is still in full effect. Complete with a beat so relentless it makes Jhene Aiko sound interesting, “Blak Majik” is one of the leanest, most undeniable songs on the record.8.0
5. Speak My Piece
“Speak My Piece” is perhaps the only moment on Nobody’s Smiling where Common sounds out of pocket. The rattling track is more elusive than it seems, and he can’t quite hit the swing it needs. He “guzzles red wine ‘til it’s bedtime”, which isn’t quite the swagger Big was going for on the sampled bars from “Hypnotize”. It’s the kind of neo-1989 feel that sounds great on paper and is tougher and tougher to pull off (although “Ye? That’s my nigga from back in the day” hits the right notes). If there’s a saving grace, it’s that “Speak My Piece” is hidden at the perfect spot in the album’s sequencing so as not to derail any momentum.6.0
6. Hustle Harder
If “Speak My Piece” is the only time Common doesn’t sound at home on the vocal takes, “Hustle Harder” is the only time when his pen thoroughly fails him. “Hustle Harder” is admirable in the vaguest of ways—a celebration of female independence that ends up reading as paternalistic and, well, cluelessly sexist itself. (“She hustle harder than a nigga” is a compliment, sure, but a suspicious bar to set.) Furthermore, Common’s inclusion of Snoh Aalegra and Dreezy feels like naked tokenism—unfortunate, considering that in person he seems genuinely concerned about female representation in hip-hop. To her credit, however, Dreezy’s opening line (“I be livin’ like I need a Lamborghini”) is an instant classic.6.0
7. Nobody’s Smiling
The stuttering drums on “Nobody’s Smiling” give it a current, decidedly Chicago feel—the perfect backdrop for Common. He sounds fed up, at the end of his rope with the state of his city. Alternating between dirt-caked observations and lamentations, Com’s verses are tight and effective, but it’s Malik Yusef’s formless turn that steals the show. His seemingly endless verse (“I might be part of the problem”) takes shots indiscriminately, be it at celebrities who flee the city or at those who “can’t even moonwalk”. He ends with what is perhaps the cleverest line on the entire record: “GOOD Music in the building, yeah we got ghostwriters/They just actually ghosts.”9.0
8. Real
“Real” is perhaps the best blend of No I.D.’s current angle and his more familiar, well-worn soul. In suit, Common sounds like he’s taken an overdue trip to 1997. The second verse is a rote distillation of his more conscious raps of years past, but the first is an excited ode to Chicago, the kind Nobody’s Smiling would be remiss to omit. For once on the album, Com sounds at peace with his home, proud to “breeze down Lake Shore” in his Jordan 3s.7.5
9. Kingdom
If you ever find yourself in an elevator with Common and don’t know what to talk about, bring up Vince Staples. I once asked him about the L.A. up-and-comer in the middle of dinner, and he launched into full rapper mode. There are the broad strokes: Staples’ has a unique point of view, a sense of soul, even a great voice (for which Com cites Guru, of course). But what really sells Vince is his inventiveness when it comes to rhyme patterns, a point Common drives home by freestyling a series of four-bar sets, pointing out where the rhymes would naturally be—and what words were likely to fill those spots. The clinic comes with an undeniable message: Common has been putting out records since before the 21-year-old Staples was born, and he is still studying the craft, determined to be the best rapper on the block, in the city, in the world. His writing on “Kingdom” is common at his most purposeful, his most efficient: “Second row of the church with my hood on/My homie used to rap, he was about to get put on.”9.5
10. Rewind That
A slowed-down number that would have been right at home on One Day It’ll All Make Sense or Resurrection, “Rewind That” opens with an affecting verse dedicated to No I.D. and Twilite Tone, the friends he regrets abandoning for the spoils Brooklyn had to offer at the turn of the century. It’s touching and surely appreciated by the subjects, but make no mistake: “Rewind That” is for J. Dilla. Common was roommates with the legendary producer as the latter’s health deteriorated before his untimely death in 2006. Com raps plainly about bringing Dilla out to L.A., “wishing I could will him out of his wheelchair”. The verse ends with an anecdote about a television stand Dilla bought Common that went unused, which Com now promises to fill with a Grammy. It’s perhaps the most personal, most intimate tribute of the hundreds that have spilled out for Dilla—and it’s the best.10.0
Paul Thompson is a writer based in Los Angeles. He is a the lead writer at 2dopeboyz and a frequent contributor to Passion of the Weiss.



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