Review: 15 Thoughts On Common's 'Nobody's Smiling'
July 23, 2014 - 5:25 pm
1. Any album that kicks off with a Curtis Mayfield sample—in this case, 1970’s sublime “The Other Side of Town,” which gets tweaked for “The Neighborhood”—lunges to a head start toward greatness. The guest swipe by drill sergeant Lil’ Herb, a product of Chi-Town’s gang culture, sends a dual message: This is a rap album about Chicago that features fantastic rap feats by Chicagoans.
2. Did we just witness Lil’ Herb’s “Touch the Sky” or “Coming of Age” moment?
3. Common’s 10th disc, completely produced by No I.D., is easily his most focused and best effort since 2005’s Be, almost completely produced by Kanye West (J Dilla snuck a couple tracks on that one), leading credence to the theory that the one-MC-one-producer formula results in a superior LP. A full clip from “Chi-Town’s Gang Starr.”
4. Perhaps even more so than young 40-ounce-swilling Common Sense’s debut, Can I Borrow a Dollar? or Resurrection, you feel a distinct sense of place on Nobody’s Smiling. In addition to producer—scratch that—super-producer No I.D. and Lonnie Lynn himself, the LP features unsung Chicago talents Malik Yusef, Dreezy, and Herb; samples Cabrini-Green legend Mayfield; and flicks Windy City references at throughout, from Bears hats to L Train stops to Lakeshore drives. Chicago the City is the third star character in this performance.
5. Common makes wise use of his brand-new labelmates. Features from fellow Def Jam artists Big Sean (“Diamonds”) and ’bout-to-blow Vince Staples (“Kingdom” and Out on Bond”) hit hard (Jhene Aiko pops up on "Blak Majik," too). Sean is quickly becoming a sure bet to for hire-a-hook. His “Nooooo!” call and eh-eh-eh adlibs on “Diamonds” make the single almost as catchy as his work on Rick Ross’s “Sanctified” earlier this year.
6. The burly, beautiful ghost of Biggie looms large. Head-nodder “Speak My Piece” jacks its hook from “Hypnotize,” and the lyrical format of the searing street coda “7 Deadly Sins” owes a tip of crocheted hat to “10 Crack Commandments.”
7. When it comes to recording artists, Common is one of the most proficient pure freestylers. The playful stream-of-consciousness he runs on “Speak My Piece” and “Young Hearts Run Free” gives you a Resurrection feel, as far as verse structure.
8. It’s possible Com just made the first feminist strip-club anthem. “Hustle Harder” (Than a N-gga) is “Make Me Proud” with a mean mug and set to pole-dance bass thumps: “The ass is stupid/ She far from a dummy.” And the anchor verse by Dreezy gives it a lady’s stamp of approval and made me go YouTube her “Chiraq” video. Something you should do also.
9. Still, I cringe a bit anytime I hear a 42-year-old use the word ratchet in earnest.
10. “Nobody’s Smiling,” the brooding title track, tackles Chicago’s violence head-on over the kind of sparse, echo-y, drum-machine beat Ice-T would’ve demolished in 1988. Knowledge gets spilled with venom. Sample lyric: “If we ain’t eatin’ together, what is this cake for?”
11. Not since “Jesus Walks” has trying to walk the righteous path sounded as fresh as it does on extended spiritual metaphor of “Kingdom,” complete with a church choir chorus.
12. Common’s collaboration with Ab-Soul, “Made in Black America,” which dropped back in February, didn’t make the cut. If it’s 2014 and your TDE feature gets left on the cutting-room floor, you got some heat. Still, that joint would fit in better in this set than Smiling’s requisite R&B concession, “Real,” featuring Elijah Blake. Yawn.
13. Love the confessional details Common reveals in “Rewind That,” an ode to his favourite producers. He expresses regret for not giving No I.D. a track on his commercial breakthrough, 2000’s gold-selling Like Water for Chocolate. And then dives deep into what it was like living with a lupus-stricken J Dilla and how Jay Dee bought him a TV stand for a gift. Common never used it, and feels crappy about.
14. Brevity is key in our ADHD age, and Com smartly edits the track list to a dozen songs and the run time under 53 minutes. Makes sense when you consider the album started off as an EP. Half short, twice strong.
15. The year 2014 has been kind to message-based rap acts that first made their debut in the early ’90s. Common joins Pharoahe Monch and The Roots in dropping great records more than 20 years after jumping on the scene. Who says you can’t age gracefully in hip-hop? That so-called conscious rap is banging again.