Published Jul 22, 2014On his tenth album, Common chooses to focus on his Chicago hometown, a city that has been beset by increasing violence over the past few years. Producer (and now label executive) No I.D., the main sound provider who crafted Common's first three albums, returns to that primary role here.
However, given the subject matter and album title, the jazzy soundscapes and free associative rhymes that marked those releases are jettisoned in favour of sombre narratives and foreboding ambience. Indeed, on a couple of tracks, No I.D.'s music exhibits the full-circle influence of his mentee Kanye West (who piloted Be, Common's 2005 return to form) and his penchant for reverb-heavy codas. "The Neighbourhood" as an opener is a compelling scene-setter, channelling late native son Curtis Mayfield's "The Other Side Of Town." Featuring young Chi-Town spitter Lil Herb on a striking verse, the song sets in motion the album's arc.
Common, 42, goes out of his way to not to be the preachy overbearing voice to Chicago's youth. Instead, he prefers to contextualize and observe their mindset in a non-judgmental manner, listen to their point of view (rising Chicago MC Dreezy shines in her "Hustle Harder" cameo) and take time to tell his own success story as an example of something they can aspire to. It's an admirable aim and Nobody's Smiling is bookended by a wedge of particularly strong tracks, but let down by a bit of a mushy middle. Given that "Made In Black America," a searing collaboration with TDE's Ab-Soul didn't even make the deluxe version of the album despite being one of the first new Common songs to emerge a few months ago, this is a bit of a head-scratcher.
Chief offender is "Diamonds" and Big Sean's irritating faux-Drake hook. Elsewhere, the title track's heartfelt lyrical content is also let down by No I.D.'s middling stab at drill music. He redeems himself on Nobody's Smiling's second half on the gospel-infused "Kingdom" clearly motivating Common and Vince Staples to deliver focused, emotive rhymes. "Rewind That" finds Common reminiscing on the rise, fall and reconciliation of his relationship with No I.D. and touchingly, his time living with a gravely ill J Dilla. While not flawlessly executed, Common arguably regains some of the relevance he may have lost from his last couple of albums with the focus of Nobody's Smiling.
Read our exclusive interview with Common here. (ARTium/Def Jam)