Common wants you to know his brand-new Nobody’s Smiling is all about Chicago. Specifically it’s about the violence that casts a shadow over the city, but it’s also about Chicago’s hip-hop scene and Common’s relationship with the entire town. In the months leading up to the release of his tenth album the MC has addressed the city’s struggle with gun violence in interviews. He recruited a slew of local rappers to pose for alternative Nobody’s Smiling album covers, ad posters, and Instagram photos. And the track he let loose days before the album’s release, “The Neighborhood,” is a multigenerational Chicago affair—it prominently features a sample of Curtis Mayfield’s rich, vibrant “Other Side of Town,” with Common and drill wunderkind Lil Herb rapping about their experiences growing up in two different south-side communities.
Nobody’s Smiling opens with “The Neighborhood” and closes with “Rewind That,” an autobiographical confessional in which Common addresses (among other things) his complicated relationship with Chicago. Common is at his most lucid on these two tracks, which are the closest he gets to his goal of making a uniquely Chicago album—that’s largely because Common looks inward rather than deliberately attempting to make a “Chicago album.” That’s not to say the eight other songs on Nobody’s Smiling are lacking.
Take “Kingdom,” which is a fine track—on it Common manipulates the language of “fire and brimstone” religious types to tell an empathetic tale of a young hustler trying to get by on the streets. Common aims to do justice to the stories of kids who are driven to reach for weapons after seeing their friends gunned down, and yet his lyrics are often merely acceptable instead of excellent. “A cold world that’s why we pack heaters” is nice, but it recycles a familiar theme from Chicago rap songs without going as deep as Common can get. His thoughtful words offer a high-quality snapshot of real experiences, but his execution doesn’t tap into the raw emotions behind the stories the same way, say, Lil Herb did on his last mixtape (Welcome to Fazoland).
Herb is one of three Chicagoans who appear on Nobody’s Smiling, not counting Common’s longtime collaborator, Executive VP of A&R for Def Jam No I.D. (aka Dion Wilson), who produced the entire album. Rising rapper-singer Dreezy lights up “Hustle Harder” and poet Malik Yusef closes the title track with a bleak spoken-word piece about, you guessed it, violence in Chicago (“Popes, bishops, disciples, stones, counts, princes, lords, queens, and kings, they’re drillin’ on my land but there ain’t no oil to be found”). The fact that more Chicago rappers appear on Nobody’s Smiling‘s cover and promo campaign than on the music is the most disappointing part of the album.
I don’t doubt that including photos of G Count and King Louie in the album art will introduce them to fans of Common who wouldn’t otherwise give these rappers a chance, but considering they don’t actually appear on any of the tracks it feels like these MCs were only there to help market Nobody’s Smiling. Part of what’s been fascinating about Chicago hip-hop since Keef’s ascendance two years ago is that a new generation of rappers who had been invisible to most of society suddenly rocketed to the forefront of the national hip-hop scene—it’s a shame that we can’t hear the voices of some of the rappers whose faces appear on Nobody’s Smiling on any of the tracks. (I’d rather hear King Louie on the album than Big Sean, who unfortunately appears on “Diamonds.”)
But this is a Common album, and his voice is the reason to listen to Nobody’s Smiling. No I.D.’s production is stellar throughout—the “Hypnotize”-sampling “Speak My Piece” is one hell of a track—but the best songs are those in which Common lets details about his life in Chicago spill over into the music. Hearing Common and Lil Herb rap about their experiences coming up on “The Neighborhood” makes it easier to find the similarities in those two different worlds—the streets and gangs are different, but they’re striving for the same thing.
Common’s evenhanded, critical self-analysis of his rise through the rap world on “Rewind That” provides a touching end to Nobody’s Smiling. His friendship with iconic producer J Dilla takes up more of the oxygen, but his imperfect relationship with No I.D. and producer-DJ Twilite Tone is what really strikes a chord. They came up together, and on “Rewind That” Common addresses the fact that after he moved to New York he abandoned his closest collaborators, and he didn’t have a single No I.D. beat on his 2000 album, Like Water for Chocolate: “Knew I was wrong, he shoulda at least had a song / It wouldn’t be me without No I.D. and Twilite Tone.”
The pair patched things up before this album—No I.D. produced all of Common’s last album, 2011’s The Dreamer/The Believer—but hearing Common candidly address the way he let his close friend down makes up for many of the weaknesses on Nobody’s Smiling. The album isn’t quite a grand statement about Chicago today, but when Common addresses his relationship to the city, his peers, and his past it makes for a compelling document worth revisiting.
Leor Galil writes about hip-hop every Wednesday.