It might be some kind of lèse-majesté to say so, but it can be hard taking Common at his word these days. As the conscious rapper par excellence, Lonnie Rashid Lynn, Jr. has made streetwise candor both his style and his ethos, and has enjoyed a unique faith in his integrity as a result. Absurd brouhaha aside, would any other currently active hip-hop performer get invited to read poetry at the White House? His magnetic flow and impeccable taste in crate-digger collaborators — nowhere more evident than on the career high-watermarks Like Water for Chocolate and Be in 2000 and 2005, respectively — has surely played no small part in building that trust. But on that earlier album the newly formed Soulquarians’ flawless Afro-bohemian vibes were interrupted by a harsh and revealing skit, in which Common steps away from discussing rap’s misogyny with a female fan to viciously scold one of his hos. On the Janus-faced pair of Finding Forever in 2007 and Universal Mind Control in 2008 he suffered the same identity crisis less gracefully: on the one he was a grumpy old head, on the other an awkward party rapper. Both presented Common as a composite of MC clichés in regress from the generous Chicago-bred street prophet of past records. Even the man himself seems to want to call his own bluff.
Not that struggling to be real is a sign of weakness. Self-doubt and fragmented egos have produced some of the headiest hip-hop, and uncritical claims to authenticity some of the blandest. Nobody’s Smiling falls somewhere in-between, erring towards the former. Common aims here to address his hometown’s legacy of violent crime, which, however underreported from within or overreported from without, continues to affect South Side African-Americans in vast disproportion. The problem, if it is even that, is that he’s spent the bulk of his career not in Chicago, but in New York and L.A, ushering conscious rap into the mainstream and launching a Hollywood profile. Most of Nobody’s Smiling, then, finds the prodigal son wondering what right he has to lay claim to the troubled streets he left behind. It’s a conscious album for a post-conscious age.
For a smooth talker like Common, talking through his ruminations could easily lead to talking around them, so on Nobody’s Smiling, he leaves a lot of the talking to others. He makes frequent quotations — of Rakim in the title, of the Notorious B.I.G. throughout — and his first verse on the plaintive opener “The Neighborhood” only comes after James Fauntleroy and Curtis Mayfield have had their say. When it does, Common hits the ground running: “Have you ever heard of Black Stone around Black Stones?” Following Fauntleroy and Mayfield’s elegies for being young in the wrong place and learning the wrong lessons, Common’s reference to Mecca invokes the powerful impact of Islam on his own well-being, but also moral teachings more generally and their absence once a child bows to gang life’s false idols. Then Common passes the mic to Lil Herb, who is barely a legal adult and already a fixture in the South Side’s drill scene. He’s also part of No Limit, a renegade faction of the Black Stones, and Herb answers Common’s litany of longstanding crews — “Black Stones / And Fo CHs, Vice Lords” — with younger ones, “No Limit, 3Hunna, 6Hunna”. It isn’t one-upmanship, and yet Herb’s boilerplate closing line, “You ain’t never seen the shit that I seen,” cuts deep, as if reminding his elder not to speak for the current generation.
Young voices abound elsewhere, too. Jhené Aiko, Vince Staples, Snoh Aalegra, Elijah Blake, Big Sean, and Dreezy stand toe-to-toe with their older host. None of them ever quite steals the show — although Chi-town’s own Dreezy comes close in “Hustle Harder”, which is explicitly designed to give her that chance — but they do add flashes of fresh energy to the mix. On “Blak Majik”, Aiko picks up the titular metaphor for African-American success and counterpoints actual supernatural power to Common’s more terrestrial boast rap. Only two collaborators are older than 30: No I.D., once Common’s producer of choice, making his return here alongside fellow Cocaine 80s members Aiko and Fauntleroy with bullet-riddled soundscapes of metallic minimalism and orchestral funk; and spoken word poet Malik Yusef, featured on the title track. “Nobody’s Smiling” is clearly meant to anchor the album with its bleak imagery and droning synth riff, and both veterans are equal to the fire-and-brimstone task of narrating urban hopelessness. But it’s all laid on so thick that the track tips quickly over into camp. That’s a shame, because lines like “now I see how my daddy felt the dark day he discovered that black power didn’t keep the lights on” should be devastating. Instead, Yusef and Common come across like a dark spoof of Scared Straight.
The rest of Nobody’s Smiling is nowhere near as focused. Whether itemizing his wealth (“Diamonds”, “Speak My Piece”) or mourning the dead (“Kingdom”), Common mostly coasts on effortless verbal technique. Make no mistake, his lyrical game is strong, but his convictions are loose; on “No Fear”, for example, he segues abruptly from the tale of a youthful hustler to warning his teenage daughter that “dudes gon’ want some ass / And whatever you do, do it with class”. Admirable advice, but emblematic of this storyteller’s failure to tell a good story all the way through — or that he hasn’t told before, as with the (admittedly poignant) J Dilla tribute on “Rewind That”. Maybe that’s the point: in a world with no more master narratives, an old dog can’t hope to make sense of it all.