Black America Again (released November 4, 2016)
We’re just hours away from arguably the most important election of my lifetime. Social justice issues dominate headlines and race, gender and representation are at the heart of many debates – both around our dinner tables and online.
Sounds like the perfect time for Brother Common to take the pulpit.
Common has spent the better part of two decades chronicling the black experience, crafting songs and albums that have become synonymous with hip-hop itself.
That’s why on the surface, Black America Again, Com’s 11th studio album, might seem like yet another stroll down a worn-out path.
Yes, we’ve heard these themes before. But as long as black lives continue to be devalued, it’s worth hearing again.
Much of Black America Again is like witnessing Common trading inner dialogue with himself. He pushes through his despair on “Rain” while doing some autobiographical soul searching, which paves the way for “Little Chicago Boy,” where his personal journey is condensed into 6 captivating minutes – a story that’s capped with a loving tribute to his father, the beloved poet “Pops.”
But this album isn’t just about Common’s experiences. Instead, his personal narrative is used as a frame of reference for an ailing community. On “Home,” Com plays the role of the Creator and lays out what would be his destiny:
Your name is Common
You was born to fight the norm
Take house n****s outta darkness ’till they lights is on
I’ma put a hyphen on your name
You the one that can reach into the black abyss
It’s not just a blueprint for black men, it’s motivation for Common himself to speak truths. Those trusts manifest in the rousing rallying cry “Black America Again,” with verses delivered with the fiery passion of a civil-rights minister:
Who stole the soul from black folk?
Same man that stole the land from Chief Black Smoke
And made the whip crackle on our back slow
And made us go through the back door
And raffle black bodies on the slave blocks
Now we slave to the blocks, on ’em we spray shots
Leaving our own to lay in a box
Black mother’s stomachs stay in a knot
We kill each other, it’s part of the plot
I wish the hating will stop (war)
And the battle with us
I know that Black Lives Matter and they matter to us
These are the things we gotta discuss
The incomparable Stevie Wonder, whose contribution is simply restating “We are rewriting the black American story” over and over, isn’t here just to add a buzzworthy cosign – his words bring credibility to Common’s movement, bridging the gap between two generations of change-makers.
Common also takes time to target an unjust justice system, uncovering the deep roots of prison culture on “A Bigger Picture Called Free” (“I wasn’t raised to love guns, well maybe toy ones/My pops, y’all built and destroyed him/With prescriptions of poverty, dope, and unemployment”) while using “Letter to the Free” as cautionary tale tinged with hope (“Will the U.S. ever be us? Lord willin…”).
No doubt, it’s all heavy but essential listening. The mood is occasionally softened on tracks like “Red Wine” and “Unfamiliar,” which showcase fantastic production but so-so romantic themes that lack the punch of the more potent tracks. “Love Star” is the best of this lighter fare – give props to PJ and Marsha Ambrosius for their warm vocals. Also, “The Day Women Took Over,” where Common imagines a society run by women, fluctuates wildly from compelling (“hood feel safer, family feels closer”) to kinda cornball (“Ladies get their hair done, and men, we notice/You get high-grade Indian weaves at the lowest”). Leave the pandering to Drake, playa.
It’s true, most of Black America Again feels really familiar. While I wish we had gotten more tracks like “Pyramids” – a no-frills, unbridled lyrical showcase – Black America Again succeeds by bringing much-needed discussions to the table. Yes, Common has spent the last 20 years leading these discussions but that doesn’t make them any less vital.
Now, more than ever, those words need to heard.
Black America is writing its own story. Be glad that Common wields the pen.
Best tracks: “Black America Again,” “Home,” “Pyramids”
4 stars out of 5