Common's latest project "Nobody's Smiling" is his most personal, while he brings out the best in the guest rappers.
A mostly levelheaded veteran whoâs open about his distant relationship with Chicago, Common is the only 30-plus rapper who couldâve made a Nobodyâs Smiling. And this goes beyond the conscious label or being a representative of âreal hip-hop.â Commonâs best works have been guided by a sense of empathy whether itâs through his famous personification of hip-hop or within J Dillaâs production utopia. At its best, Nobodyâs Smiling is mindful of the fact that the conversation about the urban warzones of Chicago doesnât simply rely on numbers and politics. There are voices that deserve more weight than a flattening label like 'Chi-raq' or 'the Midwest'. Commonâs latest effort â perhaps his best since BeÂ â errs away from self-importance and gives these perspectives that respect. It gives Lil Herb room to pull out that poignant verse on the album-opening âThe Neighborhoodâ (âCan't nobody stop the violence, why my city keep lyin'?/ Niggas throw up peace signs but everybody keep dyingâ). It helps Vince Staples â whoâs not even from Chicago â cleanly illustrate the distance between reality and morality on âKingdomâ (âLit up with the abuse, they wasnât for show, I promise every pistol was used").
Common caught fire once again when he reunited with No I.D. for The Dreamer/The Believer, but Nobodyâs Smiling finds him cutting out the fat for conceptual focus. Even the albumâs four braggadocio-leaning tracks â "Blak Majik" (the lowlight, but not by much), "Diamonds," "Speak My Piece," and "Real" â remains grounded by concrete surroundings. âDiamondsâ is graced with breezy production and a serviceable Big Sean feature. Here, Commonâs ambitions are still marked by reverence and mortality (R.I.P. Len Bias). The Notorious B.I.G-sampling âSpeak My Pieceâ finds Common aware of his paternal responsibilities, but other than that itâs the lightest song on the album.
The four songs are merely supplemental, and âSpeak My Pieceâ is the sweetener before the pill of the albumâs title track. If the drill scene is the scapegoat for Americaâs sensationalism of violence, âNobodyâs Smilingâ uses the genreâs trademarks and twists them into something disconcerting and provocative. No I.D. slows the hi-hats and carnival synths â drill elements â to a brooding crawl as Common unfolds brutal realities: âThis ainât a game nigga, ainât no options.â Malik Yusefâs career highlight of an appearance transforms this track into something darkly satirical: âIs there a Scarface casting at the crib I donât know about? So many shortys have tried out for the role.â
The frank honesty and introspection that permeates through the verses on Nobodyâs Smiling show the issues faced arenât societal; theyâre personal. Common has his own battles to face. The album-closing âRewind Thatâ is an affective, deeply personal cut that has him reaffirming his decision to leave Chicago, recounting the disconnect between him and No I.D. during the Soulquarian era, and looking back at the heartbreak of J Dillaâs passing: âThe beats got iller, but the sickness was still there/ I'm wishing I could will him out of his wheelchair.â At its core, itâs a manâs years-long journey for closure. Itâs a reminder that at 42, Common doesnât quite have the answers; heâs searching for them like everyone else. He also has to face conflicts like everyone else, and Nobodyâs Smiling is a clear-eyed grapple with them. And itâs compelling, too.