Crucial Conflict: Common “Nobody’s Smiling”

Thomas Johnson is hyper as a heart attack Chicago’s been in a predicament over the last few years. While the quality of its music is steadily on the rise, the quality of life of many of those...
By    August 12, 2014

Thomas Johnson is hyper as a heart attack

Chicago’s been in a predicament over the last few years. While the quality of its music is steadily on the rise, the quality of life of many of those making the music has been on a steep decline. Drill scene artists  like Chief Keef reflect the warzone they live in, Common’s predictably taken a different route. He’s too old and been around it too much to have the same perspective. So on Nobody’s Smiling, he sees it as exactly what is: a bad situation that needs to be brought to attention. This serious depressing tone lends itself to his best album in recent memory.

Nobody’s Smiling could be described as anything but uplifting. There’s not a glimmer of hope here, rather an actual recounting of life in 2013’s US murder capital. Common’s proud of the city he hails from, but it’s obvious he’s disappointed in what it’s become. These songs aren’t a celebration of Chicago like the dreamer/believer in him wrote in the past. Lead single “Kingdom” finds him listening to the family mourn at the funeral procession of a close friend. The hook has a haunting choir asking for passage to heaven. It’s made even more chilling when you hear the desensitized words spill out of the veteran’s mouth. Murders used to be shocking to him, now they’re just a trend. The LP’s title track has him paired up with former G.O.O.D. Music labelmate and poet Malik Yusef for the bleakest track of either man’s careers. “Pop out, pop pills, pop guns
/On the deck when the ops come
/Pop some, ops run
/This ain’t a game nigga, ain’t no options,” Common raps.

For a man who’s stepped fairly deep into Hollywood, Nobody’s Smiling feels like a move back into the shadows. None of the 13 songs would sound appropriate on the radio, save maybe for the Elijah Blake assisted “Real”, the closest the project comes to being joyful. The dark subject matter, consisting mostly of the harsh realities of living in rough neighborhoods, is matched by the stripped down, almost skeletal beats of longtime friend and collaborator No I.D. These are the most menacing beats Common’s ever ridden and they hold up fairly well underneath the weight of his words. A few tend to stray too far, more concerned with sounding gloomy than agreeable; “Blak Majik” in particular can become a little demanding by the end. It’s sample is cut a little too short and a little too warped to remain catchy. Most of them follow suit, being built around small, grimy samples covered in distortion, but with better results. “Speak My Piece” for example, which borrows it’s hook from Notorious B.I.G.’s “Hypnotize” has what might be the most minimalistic, simple beat Com’s worked with. Like I said, mass appeal is not the aim here. Even what would be selling points — like Cocaine 80’s James Fauntleroy’s voice — are kept to a minimum, making only a quick appearance on the front of the LP and on bonus track “Young Hearts Run Free”.

An album about a city would be a little redundant if there was no input from anyone who lives there , and even with him having left for LA long ago, it’s of little concern here. Common passes the mic to several young correspondents throughout the album. Lil Herb sounds like he’s holding back tears on album opener “The Neighborhood”. “I’ll be happy when I wake up and I have a free mind” is the most emotionally resonant line in his young career, maybe even on the whole album. Dreezy makes a pass for the best female MC around and one of Chi-Towns brightest with her bars on “Hustle Harder.” Vince Staples makes a hefty claim as one of the mostly subtly devastating rappers of his generation. His cold voice is both completely laissez-faire and wounded in the way only a young man who’s experienced way too much can be. The only one who doesn’t pull his weight is Big Sean; his talk of popping champagne sounds terribly out of place. It’s a stark misfire on both Common and No I.D.’s parts.

With the incredible wealth and diversity of Hip-Hop that’s emerged from the Windy City within the past few years, it’s starting to feel like a youngsters game. From Chance’s slightly experimental sunshine rap or King Louie’s malice dripping drill to the kids mentioned above, the sonics are switching up rapidly. For many MCs in Common’s graduating class, it would be enough to get left in the dust. Nobody’s Smiling provides a small victory. It may not be Common’s best album, but it allows us to take comfort in knowing that the man can still craft something with substance and power.

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