It’s hard to admit, but a lot of your favorite emcees are getting old. Which means in most cases they are also beginning to flash instances of senility that are excusable but depressing nonetheless. Glimpse Examples A, B, and C for proof.
Common, along with Twista and Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, qualifies as an elder statesman of the Midwest, and while Twista kind of disappeared after Kamikaze and Bone believed doing things like this would extend their longevity, Com’s juggled acting and the occasional album since the mid-aughts to stay in the conversation. Most can agree that all three are past their primes. In Common’s case, which can be seen on his latest album, Nobody’s Smiling, it’s not that his rhymes are horrible or even that he’s at a loss for ideas (well, sort of); Common’s problem is that he’s defined the average project–something that will please long-time fans for a few spins but that’s about it.
The concept of Nobody’s Smiling is simple: Com reflects on the omnipresent violence that’s occurred in his hometown of Chicago over the past several years. Like the album artwork, many of the tracks–all produced by No I.D.–are dark and menacing. The eponymous “Nobody’s Smiling” features some of Com’s most straightforward rhymes in years, as he says, “In the Chi ain’t a damn thing funny/thinkin’ of ways to get money.” And other tracks like the Vince Staples-assisted “Kingdom” and especially the warm-sounding, Lil Herb-featuring “The Neighborhood” see Com dropping South Side references both in exposition and newsworthiness.
But here’s the catch: coming from someone who’s been successful at least since the mid-1990s, all of this activism seems sort of contrived. And while it’s illogical to say that Common doesn’t care about his old neighborhood’s plight, if one were to consider this album to be his wake-up call to the city, he doesn’t seem particularly jazzed about it. Lines like “yeah, yeah I’m Black, I’m magical/I ride fun facts that’s actual” underscore the feeling that some of these lines seem phoned in–the whole “there’s a frog in a bog on a log” rhyme scheme that vintage Common was above.
The winners on this album, then, are not only the young emcees who are closer to what’s happening in the streets nowadays–Chicago’s Herb and Long Beach native Staples kill their verses–but also No I.D., whose production palette on Nobody’s Smiling really only suffers on “Real.” Common, the rapper behind the album, is the one who feels out of place, unfortunately, and despite sounding energized when paired with Herb or Staples, it makes listeners pine for an album where Common side-stepped the spotlight for rap’s (and Chicago’s) next generation to spit.
Don’t get it wrong: nothing is out-and-out bad on this album, and the Biggie sample from “Speak My Piece” might be the best utilized in a while. But the whole thing is, well, average. It packs just enough punch to skate by without fans realizing there’s no clear-cut single like “The Light” and “Hustle Harder” is just “Testify” 2.0 with a female emcee tacked on.
Nobody’s Smiling is alright, but as evidenced by the most prominent new voices of this generation, there are better things coming out of the Windy City than Common’s latest work.