**1/2 (out of 4)
"Ain't nobody stopping the violence. Why my city keep lying?"
That phrase, delivered by Chicago rapper Lil Herb, is one of the first things you hear on “Nobody’s Smiling,” the 10th album (!!!) from South Side native rapper Common. It’s a succinct, powerful statement on the current state of many Chicago streets. Common is an artist people often cite when considering "conscious" rap (whatever that means anymore), and you might expect that his album discussing violence in Chicago would take a moral high ground and dismiss the Chief Keefs of the world. Instead, he embraces the gritty drill scene the only way the guy who made the definitive backpack rap song ("I Used to Love H.E.R.") can.
While Common has never claimed to be the hardest dude in the game, early in “Nobody’s Smiling” it becomes clear the rapper likely hasn't seen a trap corner in a long time. His feeble attempts to integrate new slang and spit tough lyrics make him sound like an uncle who gets drunk and tells you an old story about how things used to be. This isn't a criticism of Common’s street cred; this is a natural reaction to wince-worthy lyrics and deflated punch lines like, “I’m hearing [bleepin’] voices, like when porn play/Stay, stay on your grind like foreplay.”
Since 2011, Common has worked to provide opportunities for Chicago youths through his Common Ground Foundation. On "Smiling," he extends a helping hand to the next generation of Chicago rappers, whose appearances feel legit, not lazy. Lil Herb continues his impressive run this year with "The Neighborhood,” on which he and Common work together wonderfully in a before-and-after look at Chicago. Dreezy provides "Hustle Harder" with supreme confidence and a little bit of fun--a hint that she's got more to come. Keep an eye on her.
Longtime Common collaborator No I.D's production is magnificent—the intense beats provide a perfect setting for tales of hopelessness, struggle and redemption. Samples from dead legends like Curtis Mayfield and the Notorious B.I.G sound like the artists are haunting the studio.
For addressing issues of violence in this city, Common deserves respect. As for the music itself, the sincerity is appreciated, even if it doesn't stick the landing.
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