There’s a war just beyond Lake Shore; no child is safe from it. Just a Friday ago, Shamiya Adams, an eleven-year-old girl, was struck and killed by a stray bullet that ventured through her Englewood bedroom window. Adams was among the first of forty to suffer gun violence this past weekend in Chicago, Illinois.
Both threats of violence and citizen frustration with such are the layered soundtrack of a city that's wound its spotlights to Chief Keef, Lil Durk, King Louie, Lil Herb, and Sasha Go Hard, the constellation of rap stars who can shine only so bright amidst all the gunsmoke. “Don’t Like,” “Dis Ain’t What You Want,” “Kill Shit:” this is the state of fun. The kids are beleaguered, so imagine how wrinkled and sleepless the vets are these days. Common being the most senior of them all.
Three years ago, Common's The Dreamer/The Believer was a rare fit of aggression, the most admirable sort of midlife crisis a rapper could suffer. Common’s suitor feud with Drake (for the love of Serena Williams, he admits) seems to have inspired not only a diss track but also the rest of that album’s bluster and grit, with good life proclamations like “Ghetto Dreams,” “Blue Sky,” and “Celebrate.” Common was having fun, you’d have guessed.
On Nobody’s Smiling, in contrast, Common is here to put on for Chicago, rather, "Chiraq," a mythopolis embodied by hometown collaborators Dreezy, Malik Yusef, and co-executive producer No I.D., as well as guests Vince Staples and Big Sean—overall, a youthful roster that's on display rather in competition with the big homie. Sean lends his hook magic to “Diamonds,” the album’s third single, which closes with one of Sean’s most nimble guest verses to date, a deliberate contrast with Common’s tight jabs. On “Blak Majik,” Jhené Aiko’s gliding vocals uplift the track’s screwed, looped sample chant and Common’s aggressive autobiography. Despite the few O'block shoutouts and front cover flattery of the drill movement, there’s no drill appropriation or approximating here; nor does he wag his finger, though Nobody's Smiling does approximate church and choir on “Kingdom,” with Common testifying, "Revenge is supposed to be the Lord's but I use my own accord;/When I seen him on the porch, cost my man his life, I can’t afford/Not to hit him; shots ripping through his True Religion denim;/These streets is my religion."
Like the earlier Believer, Nobody’s Smiling is a No I.D. production from intro to finish; this time more pensive than percussive; more chin-scratching than lively boom-bap. The album's most uplifted track, "Rewind That," is a violin remembrance of Detroit's dearly departed J Dilla. The most severe cuts, “Blak Magik” and “Nobody’s Smiling,” briefly posit Common as a menace to this day: “I don’t play away games, I got hittas at home;/I’mma die at like six in the morn’;/me and my homies speak in similar tones,” he raps on “Blak Majik,” presumably gesturing wide to the streets behind him. “If we ain’t eating together, what is this cake for?/Ain’t nobody giving it, that’s what we take for;/Niggas is broke, what I need to break for?/Glaciers of ice; lasers and lice;/Let the chains glow heavy, we paid for em twice.”
It’s via such commiseration and arrogance in common, then, that Common speaks as the elder ambassador to the young drug chiefs who do most of the shooting these days. Common’s been there, done that. “Young Hearts Run Free,” the deluxe edition’s final track, considers “the state of the art, state of the drill, state of the mind, state of the city,” squaring pessimism and the citywide murder rate with sheer amazement at his own longevity. James Fauntleroy hums the outro as a sort of morning prayer: “Let me carry you, I need to hit the gym;/Young hard jab but the difference is,/Got young love but I’m not young;/Faith in love but I’m not dumb.”
Common abides in his refusal to condescend, understanding that the hardest of heads may well ignore him. A veteran indeed; never a guerrilla so explosive as Black Thought, but never so undergraduate and prescribed as Talib Kweli or Lupe Fiasco. Nobody's Smiling isn’t the best rapping of Common’s career, but it's knuckles and cool coupled with purpose and message, so long as you’ll hear him out: Your sisters are dying, nobody’s smiling, and tears make you no less of a man.
Justin Charity is a Staff Writer at Complex. He tweets @BrotherNumpsa.