I’m discussing the deluxe, 13-track version of this album
Off the top, I gotta walk that title back a bit. I just can’t commit to the click-bait maneuver. Nobody’s Smiling isn’t all that bad. In fact, it’s just like water in that sense. Cool water is the most refreshing thing on Earth when you’re dehydrated, and a select few love the taste regardless of hydration concerns. Like them, there will be people who love Nobody’s Smiling. It’s refreshingly different from mainstream hip-hop, it’s not too energetic, and it’s at times very grounded in reality. Unfortunately, it’s also just…not…super-exciting.
Nobody’s Smiling may not be too exciting but it is definitely not terrible. For one thing, I love that its theme is Chicago’s current inner-city crime epidemic, because I can’t think of anyone else at Common’s level of mainstream relevance that is trying to earnestly speak for the poor like this. Other, much younger and much more local Chicago artists lend verses to a few songs, giving these songs and the overall album an authenticity and street foundation that actor/rapper Common probably couldn’t have mustered on his own. These rising rappers, Dreezy, Lil’ Herb, Malik Yusef, plus Vince Staples (from L.A.), all have a lot to say and greatly elevate the songs they’re featured on. And while they each rapped circles around Common, he at least deserves credit for making the songs happen.
Keeping the Chicago thing going, No I.D., Common’s former full-time producer, does every track here. I’ve never been in love with his work, but these songs work really well when both he and Common commit to the theme. Tracks like The Neighborhood, Nobody’s Smiling, and 7 Deadly Sins all have the exact right amount of darkness and menace in their instrumentals, and Common sticks to his topic enough that they’re pretty good songs. Meanwhile, Hustle Harder‘s theme-appropriate instrumental is marred by its stupid lyrics. Celebrating women who work extremely hard is a nice purpose, but the jovial tone in Common’s lyrics ruins it. In the second verse he says
The way she walk in them pumps
Talkin’ ’bout, takin’ over the world while holding a blunt
She hold her man down when her man get locked up
Prada, keep movin’, she movin’, movin’ and shakin’ like Parkinson’s
Between the Prada brand reference, her high heels, her ass shaking, and the fact that she’s smoking a blunt, you’d be forgiven for forgetting that this song is about more than a woman Common is attracted to. He fails in his attempt to celebrate this type of woman while acknowledging that some stereotypes describe her, because he moves beyond that to celebrating the stereotypes. The needed seriousness is lost, and the message along with it. (And his too-happy delivery and elementary punches don’t help at all.) Dreezy’s verse is overwhelmingly better but it, to its detriment, somewhat sticks to the road paved by Common’s verses.
Other, worse songs completely give up on the subject, in both beat and rhymes. These should die in a fire. They include Diamonds, although Big Sean’s parts are almost catchy enough to be good, and Speak My Piece, which fails because the beat is meh and Common hasn’t been good at braggadocio for a long while.
Verdict: I could forgive the detours from such a worthwhile topic if Common had brought his best raps, but even the better verses fall far short of the bar he set earlier in his career. They sound like they were written quickly in between attending to more pressing business. I’d also be more forgiving if No I.D.’s best beats were used, but a few of these are total stinkers. This album lacks magic; even when it’s good it’s not great. Mostly because Common just isn’t rapping as well as he used to. By giving so much of his platform to newer, hungrier emcees, who all show up ready to impress, he shows just how unnecessary he is as a rapper in 2014.
- The Neighborhood
- Nobody’s Smiling
- Out on Bond
Every feature is a much younger artist. The only one whose fame is comparable to Common’s is Big Sean. Add to that the fact that all the beats came from Common’s partner from way way back, who owns the label that he’s signed to. I’d bet that making this album was pretty damn cheap cheap!
(Get your pitchfork ready.) I do not like Rewind That, almost at all. The beat is softer than warm butter, and Common completely ditches interesting rhyme schemes in favor of straight-forward storytelling. I appreciate the stories that he tells, especially the J Dilla piece, but I never need to hear this song again. Same with Real, minus the storytelling appreciation.
Based on this album, I wouldn’t mind Common putting together a Chronic/No Way Out compilation-ish album. He clearly still has some creativity left, just not for rhyme-writing. Maybe he should slide into an Executive Producer type role?
Other possible title shenanigans: “nobody’s smiling about this album,” and “like water missing the chocolate.”
Dreezy is way better than her Hustle Harder verse let on. Lookahere: