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[Review] Common’s new album “Nobody’s Smiling” bridges a gap and offers a surprising showcase of Chi-town hip hop

Dedicated to a city brimming with violence – and promise – “Nobody’s Smiling,” Common’s first album on longtime collaborator No I.D.’s Artium Records, showcases artful features with a number of on-the-verge Chicago emcees, actual club smashers (!!) and enough double entendre to make your head hurt. (Cake, thots vs thoughts and all that. Google the difference if you don’t know.) This album is a lot of things but mostly it’s thoughtful in its approach to describing the problems and the life of Chicago. It offers oddly comforting takes on the familiar: classic Common storylines about the goings ons of Stony Island and the city’s dizzying gang problems laid over smooth 70’s-era samples. It also offers startling takes on the unfamiliar: Drill king Lil Herb flowing with Common on a decidedly undrill beat and Common flowing solo over something you might better pair with, say, Mobb Deep.

That’s why the emcee’s embrace of the new, and the old, in this latest effort is worth a careful listen. The album acknowledges that the city of today is not the city of Common’s 90s upbringing, when he first made the scene with “Can I Borrow a Dollar?” But what’s interesting is that what he spits in title track “Nobody’s Smiling” was the truth then and is the truth now. After a low-key shout out to Katie Got Bandz “Pop Out,” Common goes in, rhyming: “Drive down Lakeshore schemin’ how to make more/If we aint eatin’ together what is this cake for/ain’t nobody given it/That’s what we take for.”

Common clearly doesn’t live here anymore. He’s also clearly not robbing folks on the street, but his characterizations of street life are well-informed. Obviously he returns home frequently (his first listening preview party was held downtown for a well-curated and intimate crowd) but he also used this album to connect with (and possibly teach) the Chi’s upcoming hip hop army. In fact, when listened to in its entirety, what really stands out are all the features. Chi-town collaborators include the aforementioned Lil Herb, poet Malik Yusef and the show stealing lady Dreezy. Other features include labelmates Jhene Aiko and Big Sean, plus strong words from Vince Staples.

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And these aren’t just random pairings. They bring freshness and spontaneity to the overall sound. Over a lazy Curtis Mayfield sample in “The Neighborhood,” Common gracefully and lyrically conjures imagery of Stony Island standard rap-fare: the street gangs, the music, the love, the lust, the clothes and how the politics of various presidents impact “hood public relations…” Then Herb poetically jumps in on the second verse and talks about the violence sans glorification. Rather matter of factly, he says: “N*****s throw up peace signs, but everybody keep dying… I came from a place where it’s basic you don’t make it; feds building cases, judges who racist and full of hatred …I mean, you aint never seen the sh*t that I seen…”

He’s right. Many in our city haven’t, unless viewed from the veil of a local news report. And that’s why Common’s direction with this album is so remarkable. (Plus, the between-song snippets from newsradio 780 add to the Chicago feel of it.) My next fave feature is “Hustle Harder” with Dreezy, a pro-lady anthem if ever I heard one. On the solo tip, the track “Rewind That,” about hip hop guru J. Dilla, is full of beautiful sorrow. For personal reasons, that particular song lies heavy on my heart. Who doesn’t want to rewind back to a time when a true friend was alive? James Dewitt “Dilla” Yancey died from a rare blood disorder in 2006 and his estate – by some accounts – is still in shambles. Yet all is not lost. Just as the Smithsonian recently announced it would house some of Dilla’s sound equipment, there is redemption at the end of “Rewind That.” Upliftment even.

For the casual listener, the album features several tracks that could blast comfortably at the club (“Black Majik” featuring Aiko, “Diamonds” featuring Big Sean and “Kingdom” featuring Vince Staples spring immediately to mind. Watch and listen to Kingdom below. Beware explicit lyrics.)

But the more cerebral listener will find that it includes vintage smoking music. Common says that “Dion” (aka No I.D.) challenged him to do more, dig deeper. He did. The overall project is refreshingly unnarcissistic. He even went as far as to produce seven album covers with six of them featuring local artists.

With this ambitious project, he’s taking a chance. Will hard core fans enjoy his drill mates? Will the drill community, some of whom consider Common to be one of hip hop’s “elder statesman” enjoy, well, the Common? He took great pains to serve up several examples of how Chicagoans can work together instead of apart. Let’s hope that more than an album, the music does what Common wants it to do, and actually brings people together.

Bottom line: Is it worth a full download or worth downloading a coupla tracks? FULL DOWNLOAD

For more on Common’s reasons for reaching out to the drill scene, read my piece here.

– Adrienne Samuels Gibbs