“A black figure…in the middle with chaos and gunfire…the beast is runnin’ rampant.”
Those are words Common rapped on “Chi-City,” a song off his 2005 album Be. That album, now considered by some to be one of the few hip-hop classics of the 2000s (XXL gave it its highest rating), was a detailed account of life on the city’s South Side, where Com grew up. When you listen to it, you can’t help but envision yourself riding in a “Olds with windows that don’t roll” through one of the area’s battered neighborhoods, watching OGs tell tales on the corner over barrels of fire. Songs like “Chi-City” were full of references to the streets, while others like “The Food” told stories of young black men doing what they had to do to survive. But the album was far from being a negative record; instead, it was Common’s love letter to his hometown, for all its beauty and imperfections. He made songs for every part of Chicago he remembered, from the love he saw on the street (“Love Is”) to its children (“It’s Your World”) to its beautiful women (“Go!”). Be was a record that fundamentally sounded warm, which was no doubt a reflection of Com’s feelings and memories of the Windy City, despite its problems.
Compare it to the music currently being created by some of the city’s young MCs, and you’ll notice a stark difference. Mixtapes by drill scene rappers Lil Durk, Chief Keef and Lil Bibby are grim and cold, laced with brutal lyrics of violence and crime. It’s not a show: These MCs, who are all barely into their twenties now, are merely talking about the “Chiraq” they know, which has gotten so bad recently that the U.S. military was deployed to help patrol its streets. This is a different place than the one heard on Be, almost as if “The Beast” Com alluded to has taken over.
This is why he’s created Nobody’s Smiling, a far darker album than he’s ever released before. On it, he’s once again creating a love letter to his hometown, but this one is out of concern that the thing he loves is causing harm to itself. Artistically, it’s a new and deeply concentrated side of the veteran MC we haven’t seen and, as a result, it comes off as one of his best albums yet.
Com never tries to preach on Nobody’s Smiling. Instead, he tries to relate to what’s going on and the feelings being felt by the city’s youth. On certain songs, like the opener “The Neighborhood,” he does this by explaining how many of the current problems stem back to “the era of Reagan, the terror of Bush,” when he was a child and crack cocaine was rampant. Elsewhere, on the booming “Kingdom,” he takes the perspective of the youth, rhyming, “Dead presidents, we want the same face/And to think, me and the president, we from the same place,” as if he was still on the corner himself. As a writer, Com has always been at his best when he’s had a specific topic to focus on, whether it was the concept of hip-hop being a women he fell out of love with (“I Used to Love H.E.R.”) or life in his old neighborhood (“The Corner”). With such a heavy topic that demands his full attention, he’s in top form here, spitting deep lines like, “Listening to this preacher as he tryin’ to reach us/I’ma need to go back, I gots to get ‘em.”
Another move in the right direction was to feature some of the city’s young MCs on the album. Maybe it was their wish to impress an artist that they’ve probably been listening to since they were little or maybe it was their desire to contribute to the conversation, but they give it their absolute best. Lil Herb’s verse on “The Neighborhood” is particularly impressive, as he rhymes “Felt like every bullet hit me when they flew out each nine/I be happy when I wake up and I have a free mind.”
It’s only fitting that Com’s longtime partner in music No I.D. handles the entirety of the album’s production, and he sets a dark tone for the project with stuttering drums, ominous guitar and piano lines and muffled vocal clips. On “Hustle Harder,” the pounding kicks he uses to start the track sound like far-off gunshots. With “Diamonds,” he laces Com and guest Big Sean with a pulsating beat for them to swag over. And with the help of James Fauntleroy of Cocaine 80s and singer Snoh Aalegra, he’s able to create melodic bridges, similar to how The Roots have used female vocalists on recent records to introduce songs and incite introspection before getting down to the heady stuff.
But not all of Nobody’s Smiling is stony-faced and grim. Beyond its important purpose amid the violence, it’s also a chance for Common to look back once again at the place that birthed him. That means nostalgia often shines through in his lyrics, especially on the heartfelt “Rewind That,” which serves as a tribute to his late great friend and old roommate J. Dilla, as well as No I.D. and Twilite Tone, another producer that helped him get his start. On it, he rhymes, “For the future of the, Chi we gon’ bring it back home.” One thing that we’ve learned from Common over the years is that, even with its flaws, there’s no place like home.—Reed Jackson