Common has always had a problem staying on the right side of the line between “conscious” and preachy—even on his classic albums, he threatens to go from being concerned with social and political issues to letting them drain his music of any real vitality. Nobody’s Smiling—a Common record in 2014 about Chicago’s gun violence problem—falls deep into that trap, turning in a collection of mostly forgettable tracks that tries far too hard and has little to show for it.
It’s not as if Common doesn’t have a reason to care about the issue, though: The Common Ground Foundation has been working with the city’s youth since 2011, a few years before it became fashionable for large media outlets to treat the South Side like a zoo. But while a guy whose regular gig is on Hell On Wheels doesn’t need to be out on corners to make good music about the city, he does need to display a little lyrical imagination and passion in his songwriting, something that’s sorely lacking on the record’s generic street poetry.
As if to cover its bases, Nobody’s Smiling features several up-and-coming Windy City rappers who elevate individual songs, but have the overall effect of making Common the sad dad hanging around a college party. Besides, the younger artists have been doing what Common sets out to accomplish with this album—drill star Lil Herb, who appears on opener “The Neighborhood,” has already made a song this year that’s a thousand times more specific, powerful, and heartbreaking than anything on Nobody’s Smiling.
To be fair, this outing is a little farther out of Common’s comfort zone than his last album, 2011’s The Dreamer/The Believer, mostly thanks to frequent collaborator No I.D., whose work on the boards is much more interesting than his beats on that album. Several tracks aim for re-articulations of newer hip-hop trends, particularly the choppy, near-malevolent “Blak Majik,” though these waver somewhere between doing something novel and just piggybacking on whatever the kids are listening to. A half-hearted attempt at radio relevance on an album with so specific a focus is also the best explanation for the disappointing presence of Big Sean on tepid single “Diamonds.”
The concluding tracks present a blueprint for what Nobody’s Smiling might have been. Lead single and standout “Kingdom” is the only song that sounds like, well, an actual song—Common and featured up-and-comer Vince Staples sound hungry, compelled by their surroundings to tell stories that stick. Closer “Rewind That,” which attempts to tell Common’s entire life story while paying tribute to his friend and collaborator J Dilla, gets its epic sweep almost entirely from No I.D.’s beat covering up for leaden, literal rhymes. It’s true that “Rewind That” doesn’t care about lyricism—Common just wants to write a five-minute memoir. But memoirs have to be engaging, and, like the rest of Nobody’s Smiling, “Rewind That” can’t hide behind its lofty ambitions to cover up for a bland center.