Nobody’s Smiling, Common’s 10th studio album, was released earlier last week so fittingly so we covered it on this week’s Ether Report.
It was my pick this time around and while I previously had Isaiah Rashad – Cilvia Demo as my choice for the week I had to switch it up after listening to “Nobody’s Smiling”. Common seemed to have a certain agenda with this album from the title to the features, and I felt like it deserved The Ether Report treatment.
Nobody’s Smiling starts off with an immediate favorite in “The Neighborhood” featuring upcoming Chicago artist Lil’ Herb. Common kicks the song off giving us a little bit of a lesson on the streets of Chicago as he name drops the Windy City’s infamous street gangs, such as the Almighty Black P. Stone Nation, the Four Corner Hustlers, and the Almighty Vice Lord Nation; and reflects on the beginning stages of his career. Com’s verse was stellar, but Lil’ Herb’s verse is what makes this track. It’s perfect. His delivery is razor sharp. When we think of Lil’ Herb we think of Chicago drill music where lyrics are kept to a minimal in favor of ‘statement flows,’ but he completely obliterates any perception of him being one dimensional musically or personally in that sense with a verse that rivals (if not bests) the legend who came before it.
“Have you ever heard of no limit, three hundred, six hundred?
Folly boy, O block, eastside
Where it ain’t no conversation they just let them heats ride
Can’t nobody stop the violence, why my city keep lyin’?
Niggas throw up peace signs but everybody keep dying
Used to post up on that strip, I look like a street sign
I’ve been out there three days and I got shot at three times
Felt like every bullet hit me when they flew out each nine
I be happy when I wake up and I have a free mind”
– Lil’ Herb, “The Neighborhood”
Herb juxtaposes Common’s references to the gangs that ruled his era with sub-sets and newer gangs and let’s us know what it’s like to be a Chicago youth in 2014. The paranoia, the stress, the aggression – all of this energy was communicated throughout this verse and it serves the purpose of Nobody’s Smiling – Common’s album about the current state and history of his city – all on one track.
Herb wasn’t the only guest that opened ears on Nobody’s Smiling. The features were clearly the best part of the album. We compared the album to a party where Common played the host to the real stars. Dreezy had an amazing verse on “Hustle Hard” where she spoke from the perspective of a female hustler and earning her keep. Dreezy’s verse should be held up to the highest standard. We say that because when we listen to female rappers we always give them the “that was good for a girl” like treatment, but the way that Dreezy walked up and snatched her juice with that verse would earn her respects in any cypher. This young femcee’s verse watches her borrow flows from the likes of Kanye and Nicki Minaj while making it her own which deserves recognition without a any prejudice to gender.
Malik Yusef dropped a near perfect spoken word verse where he spoke on the plight of the oppressed in Chicago on the LP’s title track. In a verse that was quotable the whole way through Malik uses creative wordplay and imagery to speak on the state of Chi-town.
“They drilling on my land but ain’t no oil to be found
I might be part of the problem
I guess they just tryna prove they can back that shit up
Most of them can’t even moonwalk
My little cousin Bump J don’t know what he did when he introduced that goon talk
Is there a Scarface casting at the crib I don’t know about?
So many shortys have tried out for the role
That’s why he slide out and ride out with the pole
Now I see how my daddy felt the dark day he discovered that black power didn’t keep the lights on”
– Malik Yusef, “Nobody’s Smiling”
Malik touches on Chicago’s drill movement, the violence, the youth, his history, and the currently incarcerated Bump J in this sequence and ties it all together to express his disappointment with the current state of his city – a city where nobody’s smiling.
Vince Staples continues to win us over with verses like the ones he gave us on “Kingdom” and “Out on Bond.” Jhene Aiko’s delicate vocals standout on “Black Majik” Guest verses ruled on Nobody’s Smiling. Yes – even Big Sean.
Our panel was a bit lopsided when it came to Big Sean’s verse on “Diamonds.” While everybody else trashed Sean Don’s playful 16, I praised him for it. Sean delivered a catchy verse for the clear ‘radio reach’ song of the album. He switched the flow up to something unexpected and went with the ‘marching’ tone of the beat, brought true feelings of nostalgia when talking about the barbershop requests and ‘training day’ references when talking about his come up, and dropped some nice lines here and there, most notably:
“Slang away, walk up in this thing like a real Rockefeller
But you can’t take my dame away”
– Big Sean, “Diamonds”
I’m sure this verse was written before the whole Naya Rivera thing. All in all Big Sean’s verse was the only real dose of fun on an album that took itself very seriously.
Another favorite was “Rewind That.” The dedication to the two producers that made Common the artist he is today (minus Kanye). The first verse is dedicated to No I.D, the producer behind this album and Common’s first three projects. The duo has likened themselves to Chicago’s Gangstarr and fittingly so, they both seem so at home when their minds come together. Common tells us the story of how their relationship went sour around the time when Common made his breakthrough album Like Water For Chocolate which was produced by the late J Dilla whom Common dedicated the second verse of “Rewind That” too. He tells the story of the ups of their relationship and the heart wrenching period where he had to watch his dear friend’s health deteriorate right before his eyes. In the end Common did win that Grammy that he promised him and put it on the TV stand he got him.
“I know you’re still shining, from heaven you watch me
Watch me put this Grammy on the stand you got me”
– Common, “Rewind That”
Where the album fails is in it’s carelessness. The out of place “Diamonds,” the misused “Speak My Piece,” and the forgettable “Real” just seem to be “there.” Most of our panel threw super-shade on Big Sean for his playful verse (which I was a fan of) on “Diamonds” and criticized the beat and sample choice on “Speak My Piece.”
What was also noticeable was Common reaching to be in touch with the youth. His use of words like ‘thot,’ and ‘lacking,’ may give off the impression that he’s pandering to the new generation of listeners. We’ve never heard him use those words on his previous nine albums so at 42 years old, don’t be that out of touch Uncle trying to fit in, sir.
All in all, Nobody’s Smiling makes for a smooth listen with some of the best individual songs of the year. The highpoints are some of the most important records to be released this year. “Kingdom” is a song you will want to hear multiple times and might even want to catch a live performance of. The youth of Chicago in Dreezy and Lil’ Herb show all the way up and give us some career making verses. Malik Yusef and Vince Staples continue to shine and let’s not leave out Jhene’ Aiko’s styling on “Black Majik.” The features were great and the main attraction does his job too, but this one doesn’t exactly command you to “Rewind That” if you will. The highs were high, but the lows were forgettable.
The Ether Report Card: 7.5 / 10