By Brian Burlage, Daily Arts Writer
Published July 23, 2014
There’s something unsettling about Lonnie Lynn’s voice. His distorted mid-range flow sometimes smears over the treble/bass border. It’s gravelly. His inflection seems rather venomous at times, and when you hear it string together his somber material you start to have thoughts like “Man, if this guy is rapping about Chicago crime, it must really be a huge problem”. And that’s precisely what Common does on Nobody’s Smiling. The whole album is a log for his thoughts about growing up in Chicago, being confronted with violence at an early age and grieving for murdered friends and family. The particular immaterial quality of his voice allows him to give his subject matter a unique importance, a cut-the-shit directness that aims its five-fingered death punch straight at your forehead. And before you can recognize it happening, Common takes the podium as the experienced teacher and you become his happy pupil. Listen and learn, he says on Nobody’s Smiling: I’ll tell it like it is.
Lesson 1: Album artwork counts.
Nobody’s Smiling is the aesthetic opposite of Common’s sixth album Be, the uplifting, jazz-sprinkled soul project that proved he could delve into the root of hip-hop and still maintain his funk. The most immediate difference between Be and Nobody’s Smiling is the album cover. Be’s cover is tainted with a tangerine glow, upon which Common’s Marvin Gaye-esque profile grins openly. Its warmth and sincerity reveals much about the album’s power through spoken word: stories told around the halo of a fire. Nobody’s Smiling, on the other hand, takes its moniker very literally. Common’s stony face emerges like a ghost, his eyes dark as coal, the front of his pale face turned aslant now, the whole look of him bending into shadow. From the second we notice its correlation to Be, we learn that Common has set a pretty high mark for the album. His is grave business, after all.
Lesson 2: Politics have changed very little in south-side Chicago.
Sure, Common has had his share of political involvement with campaigns, protests and charity. And sure, he even took a special trip to the White House in 2011 to perform for the Obamas. But if Be was his grand inaugural address, then Nobody’s Smiling is his solemn campfire talk, in which he bears the heft of his anxiety about Chicago crime to the people who might not know better. R&B production wizard James Fauntleroy kicks off the opening track “The Neighborhood” with a plea, his voice straining from somewhere in empty space: “But be careful don’t drown in the gold/I know it glows but it’s cold.” A chorus of shrill trumpets shatters the peace. Common and Lil Herb (hailing from ‘Terror town’ in Chicago) use the rest of the song to explain just how impossible it is to leave a neighborhood in Chicago and how consistently dangerous it is to challenge any of the neighborhood rules. Urban division often translates to political division, they seem to state – not the other way around.
Lesson 3: Gloom has a place in an album’s sound.
While Common busies himself with painting a bleak and even tragic portrait of Chicago, producer No I.D. crafts even bleaker instrumentation. With the exception of “Hustle Harder” and “Real” – two tracks that gracefully address sexuality in the midst of violence – the beats are thunderous, the bass is deep and an electric tinge galvanizes the album’s neo-soul vibe. Horn sections filtered through mix machines and a score of wiry classical instruments each add beauty to an otherwise desolate soundscape. No I.D. has delivered his trademark intensity in a number of genres with a number of artists. He brought us “Black Skinhead,” “Holy Grail,” “Find Your Love” and “Run This Town.” While No I.D. and Common have collaborated before, Nobody’s Smiling marks the first time they’ve worked together on the Def Jam label and it shows. The album is a confident departure from previous forms and techniques.
Lesson 4: Time can be used to spite death.
Each of the ten tracks on Nobody’s Smiling express a state of being. Common qualifies the state of his own life by exploring time. He sees time as an investment, and whether by means of money or murder, it can actually rearrange priorities (especially in the light of violence) and refocus ambition. He raps on “No Fear”, “If I’m in the building that mean I got equity/Where articles are black like Ebony/Since I was a shorty I was thinking longevity/No fear, I say that with levity.” Nowhere else on the album does Common rap about what he dreamed of as a kid. Instead of money, women or cars, it’s longevity. A longer life. More time. These are the things that he was taught to appreciate growing up. Why? Because death was around the street corner.
Between No I.D.’s masterful blending of hip-hop with R&B and Common’s laid-back lyrical prowess, the two are able to reify life in urban Chicago. Common’s not telling us about its violence and crime to win our sympathy, he’s telling us about it to win our admiration. He made it out. He made it to L.A., to the studio, to the big labels, the parties and even to the White House. “Survivor soldier a child is destined/A star is born in a Chicago storm/The name is Common/I’m anything but the norm” he raps about himself on “Real,” and he’s exactly right. Three years have passed since his last release. True to his own creed, Nobody’s Smiling makes it obvious that he let none of that time go to waste.