When Common began to work on his 10th studio album, Nobody's Smiling, he started with thoughts of 1980s hip-hop pioneers Eric B. & Rakim and their classic single "The Ghetto," where Rakim rap's "nobody's smiling" on the hook. That was the seed but, very quickly, Common turned his attention to the street violence in his native Chicago, using the city's troubles as his chief inspiration.
"The beginning was that phrase," Common told MTV News' Sway Calloway during a special sit-down airing on MTV Jams on Thursday (July 24), "but it came from a conversation that me and No ID was having. We were in the basement in his studio and we were talking about what's going on in Chicago. ... We were talking about all that was going on and how we can give back."
Common's latest LP, which was released on Tuesday, is a much darker ride for the veteran MC. While albums like 2005's Be and its follow-up, Finding Forever, are filled with hope, Com captures the despair in the Chi-Town streets on Nobody's Smiling.
On the album-opening The Neighborhood, Common teams with newcomer Lil Herb. First, the decorated rap elder paints a picture of gang life during his come-up. "Have you ever heard of Black Stone around Black Stones?/ And Four CHs, Vice Lords, Stoney Island oasis," he raps to the younger Herb.
Herb uses his verse to respond, painting a picture of Chicago's current landscape: "Have you ever heard of No Limit? 300, 600?/ Folly Boy, O Block, East Side/ Where it ain't no conversation, they just let them heats ride/ Ain't nobody stop the violence, why my city keeps lyin'."
"Kingdom," with Vince Staples, tells a more detailed story of drug deals gone wrong and a wicked revenge plot over a haunting gospel sample.
For the most part, Common avoids formulaic rap songs on the album, which was produced entirely by No ID. There are no sing-alongs along the lines of "Go," "Come Close" or "The Light," instead Com offers bass-rattling tracks, pro-black odes like the Jhene Aiko-assisted "Blak Majik" and the grim title track.
Musically, Nobody's Smiling doesn't make the mistake of trying to fit in with Chicago's current drill scene, which is dominated by younger rap artists who are more aggressive in their musical approach -- artists like Chief Keef, Lil Duuk and King Louie. Instead, Common offers his perspective as a 42-year old MC, while still maintaining his own sense of fresh.
So when Com links up with artists like Dreezy, Vince Staples, Lil Herb and Big Sean for the LP, he never sounds out of place. "I actually think this is what the album embodies," he said, "the feel of the classic music but it's a fresh sound."
We must say, we agree.