Nobody’s Smiling (to be released July 22, 2014)
For years, Common has reigned as hip-hop’s unofficial poet laureate, the conscience of the streets.
On his 10th album, Com brings his brand of enlightenment back to his hometown of Chicago. Nobody’s Smiling shines a light on the violence that has rocked Chicago streets – not only identifying the cause of strife but seeking solutions as well.
It’s pretty heavy subject matter for a genre that seems to be dumbed down by the second. But with the help of longtime partner No I.D., Com attempts to raise the bar.
On the opening track “The Neighborhood,” Common acknowledges the adverse affects of putting materialism over morals. The title track takes that concept further – “driving down Lakeshore, scheming how to make more,” he spits. It’s a mindset that isn’t just crippling young males. On “Hustle Harder,” Common tells the story of women who grind even harder than the guys, noting that these women may sell bootleg purses but “if she had kids, she’d mother/father them both.”
The lines of morality are blurred when you’re trying to survive.
Common turns to his faith for answers on the gospel-tinged “Kingdom,” asking God for guidance but also remaining defensive. “You created me from dust, that’s why I did dirt.” Com speaks from the same hopelessness and regret as his Chicago brethren.
Much like the subject matter, the album’s production is dark and heavy. Most times, it feels more like Kanye’s Yeezus than Common’s soulful 2005 banger Be. Still, it works – Common has plenty of space to rattle off punchlines on “Speak My Piece.” The Biggie sample is a perfect fit for the cypher-like atmosphere.
Nobody’s Smiling works well as a concept album, sort of a lyrical think-piece on the plight of Chicago. But as an album, it fails to connect with the listener on the same level as Common’s best works, including his last album, The Dreamer/The Believer. While mostly everything is solid, minus Jhene Aiko’s repetitive hook on “Blak Majik” and Big Sean sounding WAY out of his element on “Diamonds,” the album’s brief running time and laser-like focus on its subject matter don’t provide much diversity.
In fact, the album may have worked better if it took a direction similar to Nas’ The Lost Tapes compilation – a series of gritty, loosely connected tracks with a central theme, without a glut of guest stars to drag things down.
Still, don’t discount the power of Common’s message. “Rewind That,” the album’s most heartfelt track, is a tribute to both of Common’s mentors, No ID and J. Dilla. It’s proof that even in our darkest hours, we can still find something to smile about.
Best tracks: “Hustle Harder,” “Speak My Piece,” “Rewind That”
3.5 stars out of 5