Common exists in sainted territory in hip-hop: the rare rapper who's appeared on "Oprah", he's earned a default level of respect and can reliably release major label albums every few years, no matter what the industry climate. For many, Common's latest album, Nobody's Smiling, will hold a polarized position in the midst of Chicago's senseless violence, a symbol of all that is right in a genre too often derided for moral depravity and/or artistic bankruptcy. Others will cynically dismiss this latest effort, as Common hasn't lived in Chicago in years but is releasing a record capitalizing on the city's newly gritty national reputation. But Common's not interested in moralizing, nor trendchasing. Although he writes a familiar snapshot of Chicago, its troubles seem a catalyst for his own creativity. The album's most convincing when tackling the push-and-pull conflict between the individual and his hometown, as Common's good intentions are buoyed by memory, generosity, and attentiveness to his craft.
Looming over the album is the specter of Chicago's gun violence and the music which first brought it to our attention; Common's 2011 album The Dreamer/The Believer was released just weeks before Chief Keef hit the national radar. So Nobody's Smiling displays some idealism-drain, its black and white cover art reflecting a stripped down sound. Common and longtime producer No I.D. aren't interested in competing with the street sounds emanating from his hometown. Instead, they go for a complementary feel, with old head-friendly percussive loops and blaxploitation rhythms ("Blak Majik," "Speak My Piece," "Hustle Harder"). Common's delivery has a loose, nimble quality throughout, his words tumbling out with practiced ease. His lyrics are writerly, internal rhymes focused on a history he can recall but which seems distant now: "Have you ever heard of Black Stone around Black Stones?/ And Four CHs, Vice Lords, Stony Island on Aces/ The concrete matrix, street organizations, they gave violations, hood public relations."
Common's approach here is to intertwine his own story with his memories of Chicago in order to forge a connection to the next generation. The use of a Biggie sample on "Speak My Piece" is emblematic; when Common was an emerging artist, the young Christopher Wallace spoke powerfully to the same state of mind Chicago's street rappers wrestle with today. "7 Deadly Sins", a bonus track on Nobody's Smiling, sounds like another way to integrate a mid-'90s street feel, complete with a "Ten Crack Commandments"-esque concept and Wu-Tang-recalling beat. Throughout, Common attempts to speak to everyone, offering bits of wisdom for a new generation while contextualizing for an older, outside audience.