In the 20 years since the release of Common’s 1994 album Resurrection, the rapper has become a rare transcendent figure in hip-hop. He’s walked the tightrope from the underground to the mainstream, from Chicago’s slums to Hollywood’s red carpets, and his music has evolved for better and worse with his rising celebrity. His last album, the socially conscious, if slightly sanctimonious, The Dreamer/The Believer, was a much needed return to form after Universal Mind Control, the middle-aged rapper’s regrettable experiment in techno-party rap.
Common’s latest, Nobody’s Smiling, centers on the war-torn streets of South Side, Chicago that Common left nearly two decades ago, a setting the 42-year-old rapper navigates like a hardened local. The album’s best moments explore this tension, proving that despite Common’s age and commercial success, he can figuratively inhabit Chiraq better than most of the city’s rising stars.
The album’s opener, “The Neighborhood,” sets the tense tone with a verse that sounds like the marble-smooth reminiscing of a street-wise survivor, with Common commanding respect through his seemingly impossible endurance. Amid a Curtis Mayfield sample and a growling contribution from drill artist Lil Herb, Common explores destructive cycles of three generations of the Chicago slums. The city’s gangs may have new names, but the trappings remain the same, and the rapper dramatizes them as if he’d never left. Two of the album’s bonus tracks show his especially strong command of the criminal narrative: “Out on Bond” has Common and Odd Future affiliate Vince Staples trading stories over a track suitable for a Wu-Tang Clan caper cut, and “7 Deadly Sins” is a worthy homage to the Notorious B.I.G. hustling manifesto “10 Crack Commandments.”
Nobody’s Smiling’s few flaws are the result of diversions from the album’s somber theme, songs where Common lazily strings together off-the-cuff boasts over longtime producer No I.D.’s loose, space-aged jungle rhythms. The strip-club banger “Hustle Harder” and “Real,” with its sunny guitar strums and stream-of-conscious flow, aren’t inherently bad songs; they just exist in a different world than the one portrayed in “The Neighborhood,” “Kingdom,” and “Diamonds.” These missteps are buoyed by songs like “Rewind That,” a retrospective of the side effects of the success that helped him escape the ghetto in the first place.