Album: Nobody's Smiling
Record Label: Def Jam
Release Date: 22/6/2014
Chicago Hip-Hop legend Common's 10th studio album occasionally strikes on hard-hitting brilliance, but often steps into the ditch of tiresome braggadocia too
Giving rappers passes for being arrogant is a dangerous ball game to play, especially in a post Kanye West-Taylor Swift encounter world. However, one could argue that Common has surely earned the riches and bragging rights he proclaims. Although not necessarily a house hold name outside of the Hip-Hop community (for his music at least), his appearance at the White House and the following controversy, as well as many appearances on US TV primetime shows have lead Common to the success that, on 'Nobody's Smiling', he clearly relishes.
But here's the thing; 'Nobody's Smiling' is a strikingly disingenuous title for an album that sees Common spend so much time relishing his own technical ability and how much money he's got. This has been billed by some as his most personal record to date, and sure, there are moments of deeply heartfelt wordplay and subject matter that are among some of the most revealing tracks he's ever written. But the scales are tipped more heavily in the opposite direction by the amount of tracks here where Common fails to say much at all.
No I.D.'s production is relatively stellar throughout the album. His beats are punishing when they need to be, bounding when they need to be and reflective when they need to be. His ear for sensitivity when matched against Common's wordplay at any given time is what makes their partnership such a rewarding formula most of the time. On the cocksure braggadocia of 'Speak My Piece' Common resides over a bouncing, modern boom-bap instrumental. The title track, one of the finest moments here in terms of wordplay, is a brilliantly grimey crawl that backs a bleak account of life at street level in Common's home town of Chicago, as he references big time drug dealing, poverty and Treyvon Martin.
'Rewind That' is one of the most touching retrospective's Common has written in years. The first verse poetically relays the age-old story of working his way up from a life of hardship to one of fame, but it's the second that hits home the hardest as he, in deeply personal fashion, recounts his friendship with the late J Dilla; "You never gone you live on through the song, I feel it when I see 'em with the Dilla shirts on".
Perhaps even more hard-hitting though is the 6 and a half minute album stand out "Kingdom" featuring a much hyped Vince Staples, who is on terrifyingly good form. Common's subject matter sees him talking us through themes of death, religion and being a father (amongst other things) with the kind of poise that only someone with a deep experience of all those things could. "These keys got me locked up with older men... they ended up being the keys for my life to end", he raps at one point. Staples delivers his own absolute slams throughout his verse too, at one point quipping "I'm trying to watch my back 'cause these stripes ain't free".
But for every moment where Common has something to say, there's another where he has nothing but bragging rights to offer. 'Real' may very well be an accurate pinpoint of his life situation, but its shallow misogyny doesn't do him any favours. On 'Blak Majik' Jhene Aiko comes through with perhaps her most splendid contribution to date, however short lived, but once again Common's wordplay fades into mediocrity. 'Diamonds' is slightly more fulfilling; even Big Sean sounds OK, and Common's lyric "they say time is money, forever is my currency" reels off the tongue, but again there's little of substance there.
'Nobody's Smiling' does nothing to knock Common's integrity, particularly, but all too often it leaves you feeling with in a state of "meh" rather than "Jesus, Mary and Joseph, suburban America is doomed!". As said previously, there are moments of brilliance here when Common proves exactly why he's so lauded state side, and maybe he shouldn't be vigorously blamed for suffering a little from the Kanye/ Jay-Z syndrome of being wrapped up in the life he leads. It's just that on 'Nobody's Smiling' there's not enough substance to counter the riches.
Key Tracks: "Kingdom ft. Vince Staples", "Rewind That", "Nobody's Smiling"
For Fans Of: Kanye West, The Roots