Common and No I.D., two conscious cats from the Chi, return to the city they once called home and find scorched earth and despair. It sounds more like the plot for a movie Common will star in rather than the impetus for his new album. Violence and exploitation mark Chicago’s explosive accession to the forefront of the rap world, which has sent many of the city’s elder statesmen reeling. Now Common comes with his tenth album, Nobody’s Smiling, consumed by pain felt for his city, hoping to hasten the rebuilding process. It’s a pretty presumptuous role to take and one that seems destined for failure.
Assuming a spokesperson role for a metropolis may seem pretty silly when an overload of young artists already detail life in the Windy City; similarly, delving into the culture of “Chiraq” seems absurd for a rapper whose last attempt to sound hard led to an ethering by Drake. Even with all these odds stacked against him, Nobody’s Smiling turns out to be a thoughtful, impressive record. Common and longtime producer No I.D. explore their home’s bleak situation and emerge with an album that alters them more than its subject.
Nobody’s Smiling is a tough record and Common sounds tough on it. More so than any actual content, the biggest shock of the record is Common’s voice. Here he sounds strong, hitting all his consonants, stacking them in internal rhymes. “Stokes it was folks and coke and dope/fiends choked off of smoke, herringbones and rope,” he raps on project opener “The Neighborhood.” He has to rap this way though because No I.D. doesn’t give him any choice. The storied producer-executive doesn’t go full Yeezus but still shows the influence of Drill without appropriating it, armoring up his style and sending it through the war zone. Tribal drums bang on “No Fear,” boom bap is stripped skeletal on “Speak My Piece,” a menacing bass piano riff powers through the title track. Even the singles fit the mood; elegiac choirs on “Kingdom” and claustrophobic piano lines on “Diamonds” make the otherwise radio friendly songs discomforting.
What’s so relieving about Nobody’s Smiling is the lack of pandering or conscious explanations for Chicago. Common raps with conviction about gangland ghosts without passing judgment. He also gets to flex his chops. “Rewind That” is album-ending narrative at its finest while bonus track “Seven Deadly Sins” indulges in golden age lyrical word games—a survival requirement, seeing as the guests absolutely slaughter here.
Lil Herb steals the show on the first track, immediately destroying the hypocrisy that could easily have overwhelmed the record by rapping “can’t nobody stop the violence, why my city keep lyin’/niggas throw up peace signs but everybody keep dyin.” Vince Staples continues his brilliant rookie campaign on “Kingdom” and “Out On Bond” and young Chicago rapper Dreezy vies for the female rap crown, redeeming some misguided feminism on “Hustle Harder,” proving that mansplaining good intentions is no match for the real thing.
Common willingly cedes the spotlight to the youngsters, a wise move for an album that’s supposed to illuminate modern Chicago. Nobody’s Smiling sidestepped what could have been a disaster and ended up as his best record in years, one that should endear Common to a whole new generation of rap fans. It’s like the opening track quotes: “They don’t see sometimes that in the neighborhood it’s the exact same thing/It’s the same thing over and over again.” It’s a great message for rap fans and observers. For Common, it’s inspiration.
4 out of 5
You can purchase Nobody’s Smiling on Amazon.