Much like Nas is to New York or Outkast to Atlanta, Common (a.k.a Lonnie Rashid Lynn Jr.) is the elder statesman of Chicago. Predecessor Nobody’s Smiling was his message to his city. The result was a dark, somber record reflective of the problems that had and continue to blight Chicago. Black America Again is similarly a product of its time, reflective of the Black Lives Matter movement, police brutality and an election that has left America divided. The release also joins similarly politically charged and socially inspiring records from the likes of Kendrick Lamar, Beyoncé, and D’Angelo and is every part as important as the rest of those albums, despite the record’s lower profile.
Sonically Lynn largely veers clear of the overly emotive, big room production style that tainted The Dreamer / The Believer and more recently the Oscar-winning “Glory”. Instead, he has paired with Robert Glasper and Karriem Riggins, two jazz maestros with extensive hip-hop credentials to produce almost the entire album. Riggins, a Detroit percussionist, and Dilla protégé, in particular, seems a natural partner to Common. His compositions are rhythmically complex and emotively powerful and provide the ideal platform for Common, much like Dilla before him. As with much of his previous work Common’s decision to work with a limited pool of producers on each album allows him to create a sonic narrative and add cohesion that is often missing in major label hip-hop releases. The closest he comes to big room production is “The Rain” with John Legend, towards the end of the record, but even this track feels more organic and understated than its predecessors.
The title track, which features Stevie Wonder, is the epitome of the album. The socially conscious lyricism is matched by a dynamic jazz instrumental and stark music video featuring footage of police brutality. Exasperated, Common questions “Trayvon’ll never get to be an older man, black children, they childhood stole from them, robbed of our names and our language, stole again, who stole the soul from black folk,” as he challenges not just institutional violence but gang violence as well. Across its six-minute running time, it rarely lets up, a stream of consciousness that is both engaging and provoking in equal measure, before closing out with Stevie Wonder’s calls to “rewrite the black American story” and redefine the concept of freedom for black America.
This message reflects the overarching narrative of positivity and ambition to create change which builds across the course of the record. A strong driver for this outlook is the power of religion. Spirituality has been central to much of Common’s work since his major label debut and it is prominent here right from the opening track, “Joy and Peace” and the riotous stomp of “Home”. Elsewhere hope and inspiration are sought in the virtues of female figures such as Maya Angelou, Michelle Obama and Oprah and their ability to introduce positive change on “The Day Women Took Over”.
There is also a strong biographical narrative to the record. “A Bigger Picture Called Freedom” sees Lynn reflect on his life growing up in Southside Chicago, falling foul of the penal system and later finding religion and music. Elsewhere on standout “Little Chicago Boy”, he explores the passing of his father in September 2014 and the impact he had on Common, through sports, religion, and music. It continues the trend for his father closing his albums and in many ways captures the naturally engaging personality that makes Common so relatable.
Common is also a great student of hip-hop. “Pyramids” weaves references to Biggie, A Tribe Called Quest, Public Enemy, and an Old Dirty Bastard sample into the narrative of the track as Common celebrates the importance of hip-hop for social activism, providing a voice for the repressed and socially isolated. The track also sees Lynn deliver one of the strongest vocal performances on the record, with intricate rhyme patterns framed in his poetic flow, showing that his passion for the art has not faded with time. Maintaining this level of focus and quality control over almost 25 years is even more impressive given his work as an activist, writer, and actor, paths that have so often led to a decline in musical output from those who have followed similar routes.
There are also quieter, sentimental moments, in the vein of “Come Close”, including lead single “Lovestar” and “Unfamiliar”. However, “Lovestar” marks the start of a mini mid-album lull, alongside “Red Wine”, which may be largely down to the beat selection. Nonetheless, even in his weaker moments, Common proves himself capable of having more to say in four minutes than some rappers can across a full album and the dip is short lived.
The positivity is checked at the last on “Letter to the Free”, Lynn’s effective closing statement. It centers on the introduction of 13th Amendment and the rise of institutional racism and feels a necessary reminder of the context in which the album is released, as Lynn asks “Will the US ever be us? Lord willing for now we know, the new Jim Crow, they stop, search and arrest our souls”. He also challenges the Trump presidential campaign, stating “we staring in the face of hate again, the same hate they say will make America great again”. The closing refrain of “Freedom come, hold on, won’t be long” is set to a flute line that transports the listener back to the folk songs of the 19th and 20th centuries and it’s in this message that we see the importance of this album.
Yes, there are a number of themes that are typical of any Common album; social activism, hip-hop studies, spirituality, and relationships, but given the unstable social environment in which we find ourselves worldwide, these messages still have a huge role to play. Whilst certainly not flawless, Black America Again sees Common deliver some of his most vital work and reaffirms his place in the discussion of greatest conscious rappers of all time.