In a wordy yet clever verse from her 2011 song “Live Up,” rapper Jean Grae detailed the inherent tensions that characterize being a rapper: “My person is the person in the verses’ stories/VS the person in the first-person stories/VS the person to disperse the stories.” As the author, subject and performer of her work, Jean has an intensified relationship with her music because in a very real sense, she is her music. This disposition of one’s art being one’s life is not unique to rappers or even musicians in general, but in rap it is a badge of honor: the best rappers, it is believed, are the most forthright, the most authentic. And the only honor higher than or equal to self-authenticity is empathy, the ability to be eminently forthright and authentic about others.
On his new album, Nobody’s Smiling, Common goes for that high honor, detailing the ongoing plight of his city, Chiraq—formerly known as Chicago—as experienced by the city’s youth. While many established rappers have recently focused on the troubled lives of the up-and-coming generation of inner-city kids (see Danny Brown’s “Gremlins,” Nicki Minaj’s “Chiraq” and Lupe Fiasco’s “Old School Love”), Common joins The Roots as one of the few rappers to dedicate an entire album to the topic. Though he is somewhat distant from his subject matter in terms of age and disposition, Common attempts to minimize this distance by channeling his personal knowledge of the streets and enlisting the help of artists who aren’t so distant from the streets, like Chicago’s own Lil Herb and Dreezy and Long Beach’s Vince Staples. To put it succinctly, Nobody’s Smiling is Common’s attempt to present the streets through the eyes of their current residents.
At its best, this presentation is driven by its sheer familiarity. On the album opener “The Neighborhood,” Common joins forces with Lil Herb and collective Cocaine 80s to outline the myriad of contradictions of living in a dangerous neighborhood: shootings at parties, hustlers as role models, gangs as family. It’s a familiar story, but that familiarity is precisely the point because nothing has changed; despite their age gap, there’s a clear continuity between Common and Lil Herb’s tales of the streets. Even the instrumental feels familiar, featuring cautionary horns and a sample of a well-known Curtis Mayfield song.
Another familiar story appears on “Hustle Harder,” an ode to female hustlers. Like Drake’s “Make Me Proud,” “Hustle Harder” primarily draws its strength from the chest-thumping of the feature artist, young Chicago rapper Dreezy. Rising above the somewhat condescending chorus of “she hustle harder than a nigga,” Dreezy out-raps Common the same way Nicki out-rapped Drake, closing out the muddling song with a brash and memorable final verse. On album highlight “Kingdom,” this trend of outdoing Common, which was started by Lil Herb, reaches its climax through the masterful work of another youngster, Vince Staples. Rapping over well-sequenced samples of Voices of Conquest and Trevor Dandy, Common and Staples summon the confessional power of gospel to conjure and vanquish their demons. Both performances are moving, and Common creatively speaks from the perspective of two fictional characters, but Staples’ verse is more vivid because Common never fully inhabits his characters.
This is the album’s fatal flaw. On the haunting title track, “Nobody’s Smiling,” Common raps, “I’m in the inner-city. It’s an out-of-body experience.” Throughout the album, Common attempts to describe this experience, but he inevitably ends up back in his own body, ultimately only speaking for himself. Gleezy, Lil Herb and Vince Staples also only speak for themselves, but they are all still proximate to the streets by either age or geography, so that’s precisely why they were recruited. The final track, “Rewind That,” which is moving in and of itself, embodies this chronic self-centeredness most wholeheartedly. On it, Common discusses his regretful past treatment of his friends No I.D. and the late J Dilla. He even actually apologizes to No I.D. This is a fitting apology because No I.D.’s omnipresence—he produced every single song on the album—is probably the ultimate source of the album’s problems. The beats are well-crafted, evocative and effective, bringing out the best of Common and his recruits, but these beats also do exactly what rappers expect them to: make them strive for authenticity. Angel Haze said it best: “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down and bleed.” This works for autobiography, the familiar, but for biography one must invoke the unfamiliar, the alien, the uncommon.
In the end, Common is just too good of a rapper: he is most poignant when he is rapping and writing about himself. This is both a badge that he has earned and one that he wears quite well, but on Nobody’s Smiling it works against him. He set out to depict the pains of contemporary Chicago, but he ended up just making another Common album.