Common – Nobody’s Smiling
by Mike Doub (Journalism/Psychology), published August 8th 2014
Moldy | Stale | Edible | Fresh | Tasty!
When the new generation of rappers can experience their rise and fall in a month’s time, a long-time insider like Common might seem like a relic. Unlike those Internet rappers that make bread by steadily releasing mixtapes, Common can sit back. Few will demand new material from someone with a slew of classics and nothing to prove, and outside of a starring role on AMC’s improbably still-on-the-air Hell on Wheels, the last few years have been quiet for rap’s foremost conscious cat. Nobody’s Smiling sees Common return from a three-year sabbatical that began after his last album, the brand-affirming The Dreamer/The Believer. Between his White House scandal and the release of a memoir around the same time, The Dreamer/The Believer was easily the least memorable bit of Common-related media from that year. That’s in part because it was released in December (both a creative and commercial deadzone) and also because on The Dreamer/The Believer featured Common on lyrical auto-pilot. Sure Common started beef with Drake on one song, but who hasn’t beefed with Drake?
So on Nobody’s Smiling, Common’s 10th album, the Chicago native takes a different tack: discussing the problems at home. It’s no secret that in the last year Chicago’s become a hotspot of gang-related murders, and artists from the area have responded. Rappers like Chance the Rapper and Vic Men$a offer Chicago at its most idealistic and eccentric, while members of the drill scene like Chief Keef and King Louie list the horrors of street life with a blank-faced stare. These are all up-and-comers, though; outside of a Kanye lyric here and a Kanye lyric there, few major label artists openly talk about the unrest there. On paper, Common – respected for his dedication to voicing social ills – is the perfect person to bring light to these issues. He’s even paired up with No I.D. throughout Nobody’s Smiling, the Chicago producer that gave Common his start.
Nobody’s Smiling starts strong with “The Neighborhood,” a hazy track anchored around a Curtis Mayfield sample. Common’s bars focus on the macro – the Reagan Era, legendary Chicago gangsters – while Lil Herb vents about losing friends to violence and taking bullets himself on a show-stealing verse. Following that Common rides an uneasy beat on “No Fear” with brag-raps about his legacy and – aside from some awkward advice to his daughter – it’s aces. But when this segues into the Big Sean-featuring “Diamonds” Nobody’s Smiling screeches to a halt. It’s not because Big Sean is awful (he is) or because he raps painfully off-beat (he does) but because his rhymes about excess have no place on an album that illustrates how a metropolis like Chicago garnered the nickname “Chi-raq.” Common loses the message on this potential radio hit, and never fully recovers it. “Hustle Harder” is a generic take on the woman’s struggle, and even stronger tracks like “Speak My Piece” and “Nobody’s Smiling” don’t offer much of a window into the Chicago experience. Then there’s “Real,” which is a trainwreck of unpleasant smarm. It’s as if Common set out to make a concept album and forgot to follow through after recording a few songs, switching back on auto-pilot.
Part of the blame lies with No I.D. too, whose synthetic soul grooves have grit but often represent a feel better executed in his work on Vince Staples’ Shyne Coldchain Vol. 2 (released earlier this year). Staples actually shows up later on “Kingdom” with an electric verse that livens the album, and his charisma brings out the best in both Common and No I.D.’s cinematic beat. Nobody’s Smiling closes with “Rewind That,” a rather belated tribute to beat-making wizard J Dilla (this is Common’s fourth release since Dilla’s passing). On it Common opens up about the joy of watching his friend at work over a stuttering tape-loop beat, and that it’s an album highlight both reassures and disappoints. It suggests that Common isn’t a spent force in 2014, but also that he could have produced a better album if he had stuck to the self-imposed script of Chicago awareness. The album is held back by being the first Common album in three years too, which is the problem with long gaps between releases; they establish expectations. Nobody’s Smiling could have been an affirmation of Common’s relevance and a damning of the violence in his native city. Instead it’s a hit-or-miss album from another legend whose heart doesn’t seem to be in rapping any more.
Recommended Tracks: “The Neighborhood,” “Kingdom,” “Rewind That”