Wednesday, July 30, 2014

album review: 'nobody's smiling' by common

It's hard to tackle legends - especially when those legends easily made at least four albums I would consider bonafide classics. Especially when those legends aren't just significant to the music, but the culture that surrounds the music. Artists responsible for making some powerfully gripping and intelligent conscious hip-hop that also managed to be accessible to any audience willing to take the time to listen.

Yeah, I'm talking about Common, Chicago rapper known for his collaborations with No ID, The Roots, Erykah Badu, and Kanye West, who has earned a ton of critical acclaim for a succession of albums in the 90s and one in the mid 2000s that are damn close to masterpieces. The man is witty, intelligent, has a solid flow, and is incredibly charismatic, and he had the imagination and creativity to make some socially conscious and challenging records. Hell, while I won't say his 2002 effort Electric Circus works all the way through - it doesn't, mostly due to a broad lack of lyrical focus - it's certainly a fascinating listen with some genuinely inspired musical ideas.

But after his brilliant 2005 soulful success in Be, Common has struggled. Finding Forever felt like a less-inspired sequel to his last record and Universal Mind Control showed Common dumbing it down to disastrous results. And by the time Common released The Dreamer/The Believer in 2011, I was a little uncertain where Common seemed to be looking to go, especially as that album tried to toe the line between easy-going partying and the conscious rap for which he's most known. Granted, the album was pretty decent, but it was nowhere near his greats and did feel a little uninspired at points.

But with the escalating gang violence in Chicago which has only intensified over the past few years and the growing number of Chicago MCs either speaking against it or reveling in it, I knew it was only a matter of time before Common returned to his roots and spoke on this directly. And frankly, I was really interested: not only was one of the strongest MCs from Chicago going to address the critically ignored issue, he was going to speak to it with familiarity and a serious grit that was bound to draw serious interest. So I checked out Nobody's Smiling by Common - how was it?

Well, here's the thing: it's probably Common's best record in almost a decade in terms of consistency, instrumentation, wordplay, and subject matter... but at the same time, it's the sort of record I wished was at the level of his classics. So no, I wouldn't say it's anywhere close to Common's best work, but it is definitely a step in the right direction, which is appreciated. Honestly, I think my biggest issue with this album is that it's only a step, but if you're looking for a new Common record that has real quality, Nobody's Smiling is definitely a good case.

So let's start with Common himself - and let's make this clear, he's a solid MC that can sound surprisingly good over this darker brand of production both in bringing hard, aggressive rhymes and the more emotive side that has been Common's tagline for years. Not all of his lines were fantastic - I always get exasperated when he rhymes words with themselves, which happens more often than I'd like on this record - but he's a talented MC that does display some surprising versatility over this sort of darker production. If I do take any issue with Common's delivery, it's more in line with his delivery, in that it's just a little too reserved to really explode on the more visceral production.

Fortunately, the majority of his guest stars have no such reserve, and Common's choice to bring in some solid Chicago MCs to back him up really does pay dividends. Lil Herb has a hungry visceral charge to his delivery that makes his gritty, descriptive lyrics on 'The Neighborhood' really stand out, and Dreezy delivers some authoritative bars on 'Hustle Harder' that belies Common's hype verses that precede her. And then Malik Yusef steps up for the title track with a spoken word verse that sends a chill down my spine with some stark and shockingly bleak lyrics with an incredibly powerful ending punchline. And for the hooks, the Cocaine 80s do a pretty damn potent job infusing some of Common's usual brand of soul with a mournful darkness that compliments the songs damn near perfectly. Outside of Chicago MCs, Jhene Aiko adds some ethereal presence to her verse on 'Blak Majik' especially when it's reversed, and Vince Staples brings a certain sleazy hustler vibe to both 'Kingdom' and 'Out On Bond' that sounds both authentic and unsettling. And yet for some reason the big 'single' from this record features Big Sean, who might be less of an annoying caricature than usual but he still contributes nothing to 'Diamonds', which is probably the worst song on the record because it feels completely out of place and token.

But then again, it's not the only thing that feels out of place, which takes us to instrumentation and production. Now for the most part, No I.D. did a stellar job with the production on this record. The beats are murky and thick, the percussion is dusty and textured, the synth, keyboards, and strings are just lo-fi and thin enough to augment the dilapidated atmosphere, and the pitch correction and production fuzz is just thick enough to augment that grime and yet never take away from that underlying soulful vibe, just shift it to a much bleaker tone. It's very reminiscent of the last album by The Roots ...And Then You Shoot Your Cousin, and like that album, it occasionally doesn't always stick the landing in creating the atmosphere. I liked the dark voices at the back of 'No Fear', but the synth loop was a little flat for my tastes, the Biggie sample on 'Speak My Peace' did not flow well with the hollow metallic beat, and the mix on Kingdom sounded a little thin and faded for the gospel swell it was trying to evoke, even despite the great verses. Yet probably the most out-of-place instrumental was on 'Real', especially coming after the title track, as the R&B-inspired instrumental felt incredibly discordant with the rougher production of the rest of the record. Now that's not saying there weren't instrumental moments that absolutely killed: I loved the ragged strings of 'The Neighborhood', the crackling distortion and roiling beat on 'Blak Majik', the grim synths and hollowness of the title track, the piano transition on 'Rewind That', and that thick beat on 'Hustle Harder' has some of the best texture you'll hear on a low-end drum sound this year!

But of course, like every Common album, it comes down to lyrics and themes... and here Common steps into a bit of an odd position, never glorifying the violence inherent on those tracks but never directly criticizing it either. For the most part, he simply places it on display and tries to write the stories around it - and I'm not going to say he does it badly or falls into the trap of lecturing about subjects he doesn't understand, but a few of the songs do feel a little underweight when it comes to detailed lyrical subject matter and storytelling, mostly because Common comes across as less a participant and more an observer. Take the opener 'The Neighborhood', where Common name-checks gangs and starts to paint an interesting picture, but Lil Herb's verse is a lot more detailed and visceral and comes across as more effective. The same thing happens on the title track with Malik Yusef - not that Common's verses aren't descriptive and potent, but that they feel a little distant from the streets themselves. The places where he gets a lot closer are the two tracks with Vince Staples: 'Kingdom', where he creates a character who gets gunned down, and 'Out On Bond' where he describes a guy just out of prison and doing what he can to survive.

Now granted, that's not saying Common doesn't have other things to say on this record: he has the boastful songs like 'Blak Majik' and 'Speak My Peace', the conscious '7 Deadly Sins' which honestly felt a little played out, and the anthem for a female hustler on 'Hustle Harder' that's both descriptive and a pretty great set of verses all around that's well-framed and executed. But the real highlight here is 'Rewind That', the tribute song to legendary producer J. Dilla that opts for simple and heartfelt in its composition and yet is no less incredibly powerful. But here's my point: while these songs are good and from a production standpoint feel cohesive with the rest of the record, conceptually they effectively split the album in two between the songs discussing the violence in Chicago and 'the rest', and the weaker songs fall most in the latter category. And it does sort of undercut the message and power of what could have been a much tighter, more effective release. And I'll say it: if Common wanted to make that visceral, potent record with all MCs from Chicago, I believe he could have done it. You want to go hard-edged political to make a statement? Get Lupe Fiasco or Gemstones. You want to highlight more upcoming Chicago MCs? You don't have to get Chief Keef, you can grab Young Chop or Lil Durk and work with them to ensure you get quality like with Lil Herb. You want the commercial hit? Forget Big Sean and - I can't believe I'm saying this - try to hammer something workable out with Kanye. It'd take effort to keep Kanye away from talking about Kim or saying something asinine, but given their history, I'm certain they could have gotten something radio-friendly out of it.

My point is that this record doesn't really feel cohesive with me - individual songs have some impact, but as a whole I'm left a little underwhelmed by Nobody's Smiling. Don't get me wrong, it's far from bad - Common and No I.D. bring an impressive standard of quality to the table, but I do think it could have been better. As it is, I'm thinking a 7/10 and a recommendation. Common is still a solid MC who delivers potent material, and he delivers a pretty solid chunk of it here. It's not close to his best, but when we're taking a look at current material dropping out of Chicago, I'll take it.

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