I’m guessing that majority of readers of this article would have no clue who Common is… Well, let me educate you on this scion on rap, who later expressed other creative talent through different mediums, by the alias of Common (formerly Common Sense). Just your generic rapper kid, from Chicago, at the age of 20 dropped his debut album titled “Can I Borrow A Dollar?”. Even though he emerged in the Golden Age of Hip-Hop, his music didn’t hit the mainstream instantly, he did however have a strong underground following. The tracks “Breaker 1/9” and “Charm’s Alarm” established him as a witty lyricist. He didn’t get his limelight till he collaborated with a group by the name of Soulquarians, which spawned a number of our greatest creative minds: Mos Def, Q-Tip, Erykah Badu, J Dilla and Talib Kwelito name a few of the members.
Fast-forward to two decades later, Common has become one of the pivotal voices of hip-hop’s latest rebirth, along with: Wu-Tang Clan, JAY Z, T.I., Birdman, Pharrell and Kanye West, to name a few. After dropping nine studio albums, broadening his creativity to the fields: television, filmography, video games, activism and writing, Common gets back to his roots on his lasted discography “Nobody’s Smiling”, released 22nd July 2014. This album is said to be a fresh start for his as a musician. It is something new for a hip-hop artist to do – manifesting a whole album dedicated to an on going tragedy.
The album portrays the brutality Chicago has, and still facing: the death toll of innocent citizens, the ongoing battle with the police force, and the never-ending gang violence. He doesn’t waste time and jumps straight into the message he wants to convey. “The Neighbourhood” (track one) is composed around how individuals from Chicago want to get out the cruel lifestyle and pursue success. Opaqued by hatred, family problems, violence, and addictive pathways provided by the neighbourhoods of Chicago, Common nominates himself as an example of what citizen’s face by telling his story as a young man growing up in this city.
Fear is something we all face, whether it is passing that exam to getting rejected by that possible significant other. These are meniscal to what Common is expressing on his second track, “No Fear”. He spits a story about a male by the name of Chris, who wants to live fearlessly. In order to do so, Chris heads into the world of drugs, crime and all things frowned upon. He comes off as an aggressive individual that teaches her baby daughter that anything she wants must be earned – nothing in life is for free. He then goes on to explain this being the circle of life. The instrumental is very basic, and this works perfectly, as the complexity of the song is added by the lyrics; it enables the listener to visualise the story. From what I’ve gathered, Common is portraying the mentality of Chicagoans. This mentality is further expressed in his next track.
“Diamonds” featuring Big Sean is a double entendre about being wealthy and the affiliation with drugs, which is ‘common’ in Chicago. This one seems to be less full on to the prior two tracks. It’s more of a feel-good song, with Big Sean ‘singing’ the hook. Sean’s delivery tone seems out of place, as it’s un-synced with Common’s rapping stance. Then again, that’s what makes the song a bit of a ‘club banger’.
The rest of the songs seem to subtly minimise the blatant Chicago references. In addition to this change, the instrumentals/beats get more complex, thus making every song rich (meaning you could simply listen to the song without the vocals and be mesmerised). This change tallies up with what majority of listeners want in a hip-hop album.By collaborating mostly with Chicago based rappers, he has kept this album to his roots. Plus, his activist characteristic is put to light on the “Hustle Harder” track, by rapping about how a persuasive and strong woman can help a man pull his life together by going “harder than a n*gga”.
Just so the listeners don’t fall far from the tree, “Nobody’s Smiling” track goes back to the reason for this album. The metaphor (nobody’s smiling) captures the chaos of Chicago. The lifestyle of Chicagoans live is explained, what to be aware of in certain areas, the pseudo individuals that live amongst innocent citizens and the popular individuals (rappers, movie stars who made it out of Chicago) that have forgotten their roots. My favourite track has to be “Kingdom”,with its hint of soulful choir plays on this as it discusses the “gangster life” Chicago. To end a novel-like album, he puts forth what he could’ve done differently in the past, into a track titled “Rewind That”. To me, it seems like a fitting ending to an album, equivalent to a reflective piece of writing.
The well-known No I.D purely produced the album. This is the same producer that created Kanye West’s 808 and Heartbreaks album, and contributed to JAY Z and Nas’ success. No I.D and Common have “a long history of making great music together” and shows in instrumentals putting it well in the league of No I.Ds pervious work. Lyrically, a well thought-out album that helps captures the message of this album, without questioning the listener’s experience. I would go as far to say that I’d put Common in the same category of Lupe Fiasco when is comes to his powerful delivery as well as depth and breath of his selection.