Jul 22, 2014

Common - "Nobody's Smiling" album review by Niles Cavanaugh

Chicago has been in the public conscious heavy in the last few years. The murder rate has been the subject of many a think piece and news reports. On the hip-hop front, Kanye West has been Kanye but Drill Music has emerged as a sub genre. Slurring violent lyrics over dark synths and an ever prevalent snare roll, MCs such as Chief Keef, King Louie, Katie Got Bandz, and like eighty million kids with the prefix "Lil" has prospered, albeit by bring the "Chiraq" lifestyle national. Throughout all of this, Chi-Town could use a savior and finds one in its native son and best MC. Common's tenth LP Nobody's Smiling is the guidance that his city needs from an OG. Originally a concept album, it serves as a "State of the Chi" if you will. It's jarring, informative, and dark; however it avoids being preachy. Additionally, it sees Common working with longtime collaborator No I.D. who produced the entire album.

The first track The Neighborhood features Cocaine 80s (James Fauntleroy in particular) and Lil Herb. Using a Curtis Mayfield sample, Common hits the track running and paints a picture of back-in-his-day Chicago. Herb, who is usually brash and full of misguided bravado like his peers, comes through with a quality verse under the tutelage of his elder statesmen. Fauntleroy keeps his contribution brief (more on this later). It's a quality introduction and the momentum carries through the next song. No Fear sees Common interpolate a Biggie line into a song about misplaced youthful bravado. This is how you start an album.

Unfortunately, the next three don't ride the same wave of quality. Diamonds features a wonderfully crafted beat and good lyricism but also includes Big Sean, who to me is as out of place as the weird kid that wandered into a party he wasn't invited to. Likewise, Black Majik suffers the same pitfall of an ill advised guest appearance in one trick pony of the Jhene Aiko. Both of these songs had potential but got ruined by that extra unncessary guest appearance. On Speak My Piece, Common seems to completely step away from the album's theme thusfar. He raps over a distorted Biggie vocal sample. It seems like it's supposed to be the prototypical rap braggadocio single but Com sounded bored to me.

Order is restored on Hustle Harder where Common and newcomers Snoh Aalegra and Dreezy paint a picture of a hardrock chick living around the way. It's an excellent song and story of women around the way; this is a tale that is usually under-reported. Nobody's Smiling utilizes a minimalist beat and shows Chicago as the modern daydystopia that it has seemingly become in recent years. Spoken word artist Malik Yusef makes an appearance and adds to the proceeding with a poetical touch. The Self-title is potentially the best song on the album and captures the theme wonderfully, even if it's darker than a Christopher Nolan Batman film.

Real breaks the storm of urban nihilism and includes a more soulful sound that Common usually uses. It's much more upbeat and crooner Elijah Blake lends his voice on the hook. Kingdom is the first single from the album and still holds up after repeated listens. Both a choir and Vince Staples assist in this sprawling track. This song bridges the gap between soulful Common and the dark sounds showcased on this album. Rewind That closes the regular version of the album as Common first tells a story about his early career with No I.D. and their subsequent falling out and reunion. The second verse is an incredibly moving piece about late producer J Dilla's introduction to Common and battle with Lupus. This song is a tour de force.

Since it's 2014, no album would be complete without a deluxe version with a handful of bonus tracks. Out on Bond once again features Vince Staples and tells a story of being out of jail on bond. 7 Deadly Sins mixes soul with street and talks about the seven deadly sins and how they relate to the streets. Young Hearts Run Free is assisted by Cocaine 80s/James Fauntleroy. Lyrically it's a decent performance but the beat is boring and James is only good in small voices. Dude's voice fit like an audio version of an Instagram filter. I think the album could have ended after 7 Deadly Sins and it would have been fine.

If you're looking for the heavily soulful Common heard on previous albums, this isn't him. Nobody's Smiling is easily his darkest album, but it needs to be. He's telling the story of a deeply troubled Chi City that once created him and is now in a crisis of sorts. Thus, it's necessary to match the tone of the current events in order to be relevant and relatable. He proves to be an elder statesmen for Chicago, both in hip-hop and otherwisse. the album is solid through and through. The only criticisms I have are some of the unneeded guest appearances, along with the sequencing of the album. The three weakest tracks come in a row. Also, I would have liked to see previously released songs War or Made in Black America with Ab-Soul as bonus tracks on the deluxe version. If you're going to release a gaggle of songs before the release, that would be the best place for them. Still Nobody's Smiling is social commentary at its finest. Common's career longevity proves you can make it out of Chicago and have a long career so long as you grow as an artist and a person. Chiraq Chi-Town's new breed of MCs have been put on notice by their franchise player and living legend.

Rating 4.5 of 5.

Multimedia Journalist, Founder and Chief Editor of WTM Host of A-Side B-Side Podcast and more. I like to talk about stuff and write it down. Sometimes to a microphone. Either way, I need you to feel this.

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