The city of Chicago has been going through some tough times lately. Crime and gang violence have been rampant throughout the streets of Chi-town, leaving it looking like a war zone and leading to a new moniker for the metropolis: “Chi-raq”. However, Chicago’s increasingly hostile conditions have only seemed to fuel the city’s musical ambitions. Drill music, a particularly hardened style of hip-hop that originated in Chicago, has taken off into the mainstream ever since Chief Keef’s monstrous “I Don’t Like” hit the scene. Keef and his Glory Boyz associates, along with fellow drill artists Lil Herb, Lil Bibby, and King L, have quickly become household names in the hip-hop world. And drill’s legitimacy was cemented after stars Keef, King L, and producer Young Chop were tapped to work on Yeezus by Kanye West, the current king of Chicago and hip-hop himself.
While the dilapidated conditions in Chicago have incubated a vibrant music scene–giving us not only drill, but also psychedelic stylings from Chance the Rapper and Vic Mensa and frenetic tracks from footwork collective Teklife (RIP DJ Rashad)–that should not overshadow the fact that the city itself needs a great deal of help. Hip-hop legend Common sought to bring the issues of Chicago to light on his newest album, Nobody’s Smiling, and as a native son of the city who also happens to be one of the greatest rap storytellers of all-time, he seemed like the perfect man for the job.
Unfortunately, Nobody’s Smiling is a terrible album, at least judging by the high standards that Common has set in his two-plus decades in hip-hop. Nobody’s Smiling once again brings Common together with accomplished Chicago producer No ID, who worked with Common on his first three albums and then was brought back after a 14-year separation to produce his 2011 album The Dreamer/The Believer. But instead of tapping No ID for the classic, gloriously soulful beats that Common consistently shines on, the dude formerly known as Common Sense acts like he has none in asking No ID to go against his identity and produce a darker, grittier album.
Throughout his career, whether he’s worked with No ID, Kanye, or J Dilla and the Soulquarians, Common has shown that he is amazing on smooth, soulful beats, and doesn’t come across nearly as well when the production is pounding and grinding (Put some blame on the Neptunes for giving Common awful beats, though). Likewise, No ID is famous for his soul-sampling production, which is so great that it deluded the whole world into thinking that Big Sean should be a rap star instead of just Kanye’s weed-carrier. I get that the typical sound of their previous work wouldn’t fit on a hard-hitting project meant to illustrate Chicago’s despair, but that shift in direction did not play to either artists’ strengths. The beats on Nobody’s Smiling emit more dull thuds than thunder strikes, and Common struggles to shift his flows to fit the unfamiliar style. It was so bad that I actually started getting flashbacks to Common’s disastrous 2008 album Universal Mind Control, the other time he dangerously swerved out of his soulful lane.
That ill-fated shift in sound wasn’t the only puzzling part of Nobody’s Smiling. The album largely failed to deliver on its initial promise, with little light shed on the situation in Chicago. Five consecutive tracks on this ten-track album (mathmathmath: half the album!) are fairly generic filler with no heavy meaning, starting with “Diamonds”, which features a Big Sean verse that you keep
expecting to fade out but never does, and going all the way through the title track that’s capped off with some uninspiring spoken word from Malik Yusef. Then, when it seems like the album’s finally picking up with “Real” and “Kingdom”, we hear “Rewind That”, a strange, sore thumb of a track on which Common’s first verse is a convoluted apology to No ID and his second verse is a tribute to J Dilla, all while No ID does a far worse job of flipping Eleanore Mills’ “Telegram” than Statik Selektah did on the Action Bronson cut “Cliff Notes”. And then, just like that, the album’s over.
Not only did Common largely fail to vocalize his own thoughts on the plight of Chicago, but he also mostly ignored the other distinctive voices of the city. In theory, an album about the current state of Chicago would benefit from including perspectives of other important Chicago artists, whether the contributions are from a superstar like Kanye, rap veterans like Twista or Rhymefest, or some of the city’s many precocious neophytes. Hell, this album was practically tailor-made for Lupe Fiasco to show up on, even though he’s garbage now. But apart from an excellent verse from Lil Herb on opening track “The Neighborhood”, Nobody’s Smiling contains no other meaningful views from additional Chicago artists (Yes, Dreezy and Malik Yusef are from Chicago and on the album, but neither provide anything significant). Sadly, Common’s choices for collaborations on the album were clearly driven more by business dealings than artistic volition, as every artist besides Herb and Dreezy is affiliated with Def Jam, the majority through either G.O.O.D. Music (Big Sean, Yusef) or No ID’s ARTium Recordings (Jhene Aiko, Snoh Aalegra, Elijah Blake, James Fauntleroy).
That brings us to Vince Staples, the only other contributor not mentioned yet. The L.A. native’s presence on the album can be explained by the fact that he is also a Def Jam signee, and worked closely with the ARTium squad on his mixtape Shyne Coldchain Vol. 2. That mixtape, however, is not only one of the best hip-hop releases of the year so far, but also conveniently manages to further define to the flaws of Nobody’s Smiling when the two are compared side-by-side. Both releases are ten-track works meant to bring attention to the plight of urban blacks in America, but Shyne Coldchain Vol. 2 is the only one that firmly grips your attention throughout. Staples’ striking wordplay demands to be heard, grabbing you by the shirt collar, forcing you to listen closely while he tells you what’s really going on. Coldchain also was blessed with much better, less drawn-out beats from No ID, as well as superior guest appearances from Aiko and Fauntleroy. Off the merits of the two projects, you’d think that Staples is the wise legend with over two decades of experience, and Staples only further proves his current superiority by lapping Common on “Kingdom”.
Ultimately, there are two ways to explain why Common failed with Nobody’s Smiling. The first is that Nobody’s Smiling was simply influenced by too many things that pulled Common out of his lane, and that once he gets back in it, we will once again be treated to the soulful, poetic emcee that we’ve grown to love. On the other hand, now that he’s almost 43 years old, it could be possible that Common’s career just might be finished, and he’ll soon be left in the dust by the likes of Staples and Lil Herb. Let’s hope that it’s the former, because if it turns out to be the latter, even fewer people will be smiling in Chicago.