“Now I know how my father felt, that dark day when he realized that
black power didn’t keep the lights on.”
A lot has changed in Chicago since Lonnie Lynn, Jr. asked us to borrow a dollar. Over two decades after his debut album, legendary emcee Common has witnessed his hometown develop (or, should we say, corrode) into a war zone full to the brim with drugs, gangs, and violence. Never being one who’s afraid to utilize his art to spread a thoughtful message, Common uses his tenth studio album to cast a spotlight on the darkness of black on black crime that occurs in the shadows of Chi-town.
Nobody’s Smiling plays a lot like its title reads. To the listener, it feels as though Common’s vision was dedicate this project to the concept of sharing the different stories of the various archetypes of characters that one might expect to find in the windy city. Drug dealers, gangsters, hustlers, men, women, and adolescents all find their stories told through Common’s pen. These accounts are shared over the production of none other than legendary producer No ID, who composes the entire project for the second consecutive album (following 2011’s The Dreamer, The Believer) and delivers eerie soundscapes to match the overall theme. While all of the pieces seem to hint at Nobody’s Smiling being a great body of work, Common’s latest work falls short of the epic, groundbreaking record that it had all of the potential to be.
Nobody’s Smiling suffers as a whole on multiple fronts. For one, the album’s concept is not fully fleshed out or properly conveyed to the listener. While we can decipher that each song serves as an account of a different character in the urban Chicago lifestyle, that nuance is not overtly or artistically distinguished. For instance, the album’s lead single “Kingdom” sees Common tell a tale of a street dweller mourning the loss of a friend while simultaneously plotting revenge and reflecting on the causes and effects of it all. Meanwhile, “Hustle Harder” details the story of the Chicago woman, who is tasked with having to do more dirty work than her male counterparts to be recognized as an equal. While this concept is a refreshing take on storytelling, it would have been more grandiose had Common and No ID took more time to emphasize these character changes by including small interludes or skits to clearly convey their effort and immerse the listener in the Chicago scenery. Instead, it seems that a less thoughtful approach was taken in the album’s crafting, and that shows in the final product.
Similarly, the quality of the beats and rhymes are also a slight step back from the normal output of the artists in question. Considering their track records, Common and No ID are more than capable of delivering quality music. However, many of the cuts from Nobody’s Smiling are more miss than hit, and seem lazily compiled by fault of both parties. After delivering the tremendous promo cut “Kingdom”, which features fellow Def Jam labelmate Vince Staples, listeners will be saddened to hear that only “Rewind That” even compares to the album’s lead single in terms of quality. The remaining tracks range in quality from ‘good’ (“Nobody’s Smiling”, “The Neighborhood”), to ‘decent’ (“Blak Majik”, “Real”), to ‘should not have made the album’ (Every. Other. Song.). This fact is made even worse after noting that the standard edition of the album only contains ten songs, which already decreases Common’s room for error from the gate. While the song concepts aren’t bad, the tracks themselves seem uninspired and would have benefited from more attention and thought (which shouldn’t be too much to ask, considering the gap in time since Common’s last album as well as the importance of the subject matter).
All is not lost on this project, however, even if this review feels as though the opposite is true. In fact, if listeners purchase the deluxe edition of the album, they will receive three bonus tracks that are actually better than the majority of the songs on the standard edition. Therefore, the album’s deluxe edition contains about 8 or 9 quality songs in total when the bonuses are included. Although this may make the listener question why the bonus tracks are not included on the standard version, they ultimately save the album from being a complete letdown.
“My money ain’t straight, my fam ain’t straight/
Ain’t want to push keys, heaven couldn’t wait/
I was hurting, couldn’t get no work/
You created me from dust, that’s why I did dirt/
You said that the last shall be first/
Now I’m in a hearse, what’s this cash really worth?/
My whole life, I’ve been worried about eating/
I ain’t had time to think about what I believe in/”
After returning from a three year musical hiatus with the compelling quotables and stirring gospel chorus on “Kingdom”, the anticipation for Common’s tenth studio album was raised to great heights. Unfortunately, the veteran emcee was unable to live up to the hype, falling short of the level of quality which has come to be expected of the Chicago spitter. While the album isn’t all that some had hoped for, it is good to see Common making music again and raising awareness on the issues that are damaging black communities worldwide. Peace and love, Chicago.
+Displays an effort to craft an album that follows one common theme
+Social commentary addresses one of the greatest issues plaguing our urban cities
+“Rewind That”, “Kingdom”, “Nobody’s Smiling”
–Quality of lyricism and style of sounds are inconsistent and underwhelming
–Concept is underdeveloped; not fully fleshed out or properly displayed
–Bonus tracks are better than the majority of the songs on the standard version
–“Diamonds”, “Speak My Piece”, “Hustle Harder”, “No Fear”