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Dark Themes Dominate "Nobody's Smiling"

Common-Nobody’s Smiling-Def Jam Records-3 STARS

By COURTESY DEF JAM
By Alex F. Dagi, Crimson Staff Writer

One of the Chicago hip-hop scene’s founding fathers has picked up the mic once more, proffering to his tumultuous city some wise advice from a veteran artist. Three years after “The Dreamer/The Believer,” Common has returned to the industry, again with longtime friend and production collaborator, NO I.D. “Nobody’s Smiling” sends a message of concern to his beloved Chi-town, touching on themes of violence and tumult in Common’s characteristically adroit—if inconsistent—manner.

Comparing the Common of today with the Common of the ’90s might very well disappoint. The rapper’s sophomore album, “Resurrection,” showcases a Common who is confident and suave, gracing each track with paramount sophistication and coolness. His debut record, “Can I Borrow a Dollar?” took all that was right in A Tribe Called Quest’s quirky, minimalistic, and jazzy tunes, and added an irresistible layer of breezy and cheeky rhymes. By contrast, addressing subject matter that is now grimmer than ever, Common has adopted a more severe tone, eschewing much of the casual flair that made him so lovable in the first place.

“Nobody’s Smiling” is a grave album. Opening with “The Neighborhood,” Common mourns the unfortunate reality of life in Chicago and connects to it personally: “Used to post up on that strip, I look like a street sign / I’ve been out there three days and I got shot at three times / Felt like every bullet hit me when they flew out each nine / I be happy when I wake up and I have a free mind.” The lyricism in “The Neighborhood” is consistently rich and emotive, but the grave subject matter is certainly not conducive to casual listening. The same holds for the track “Nobody’s Smiling,” which supports its mournful sentiment with acutely discordant harmonies and a sedated tempo. Common does well in matching form to content in these brazenly sinister tracks. He successfully distills the fright and disenchantment these lyrics convey in the unsettling percussion and melodies upon which they progress.

Despite the album’s dark theme, there are points of flash and rejuvenation. Sampling Biggie’s “Hypnotize” in “Speak My Piece,” Common picks up where he left off on previous albums, sputtering through the track with a spirited, light, and seamless flow. Common exhibits his time-tested lyrical prowess, borrowing Biggie’s double entendre for “piece” and expanding on the wordplay throughout the track. “Real” is an equally bright spectacle of lyricism and, with its ’90s soul music inspiration, grants the nostalgic listener a mouthwatering taste of the Common of old. Given the success of this track, one might wonder why Common chose to shift away from his original style altogether. A look at the more congenial subject matter of “Real,” however, would attest once again to Common’s dutiful matching of form to content on this album—a demonstration of his matured artistry.

In the context of Chicago’s alarming reality, Common presents his call for pro-peace activism on “Kingdom.” In this epic incantation of six-and-a-half minutes, Common and the up-and-coming Vince Staples plea for spiritual guidance in diffusing the war unfolding on Chicago’s turf. Appropriately, the song is strung together over the chronic snapping of a military snare drum, with occasional interruptions by a thunderous choral of gospel singers for the hook. Armed with such cohesion among all aspects of the song, Common presents a vivid illustration of the sensitive and intricate entanglement of religion, gang allegiance, violence, and success. “Kingdom” is quick to engage politically, as Common spits, “And to think me and the president, we from the same place / 421 murders, ain’t tryna be of the same fate.” Common and Vince Staples continue to elegantly broach the issue of misguided ideals, highlighting profound but pervasive conflations regarding material, religious, and social prosperity. While reflective and genuine, the duo avoid sanctimony; striking such a delicate balance on an equally compelling track puts “Kingdom” at the top of the album and verifies that Common, though now 42 years old, has yet to exhaust his creative reserves.

Though much of the “Nobody’s Smiling” achieves the innovativeness and poignancy that has come to be expected of Common releases, at least a couple of songs have no business making an appearance. These include, from most missable to least, “Diamonds” featuring Big Sean (whose Kid Cudi impersonation is so grating it borders on the intolerable), and the bonus track “Out on Bond,” which oddly integrates a James Bond theme song into the track’s underlay. All told, however, Common was right to have seen his tenth studio album through. Not only has the artist added a fresh sound to his brimming catalog of records, but he has also delivered an inspiring and apposite socio-political charge to the community dearest to him.

—Staff writer Alex Dagi can be reached at alexanderdagi@college.harvard.edu.

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