History tends to come full circle, and great Hip Hop stars are both music makers and novelists, illuminating a piece of our overarching culture while entertaining us. A unique set of patterns emerges whenever anyone tries to explain their preference of a piece of Rap to another. Some are in it for the education, as the artists who represent the artform are usually outsiders in the culture — shedding light on the undervalued, willfully unseen parts of the American quilt our shared heritage tries to hide. Others: the fun. Some, the ability to escape this reality through the lifestyle of another, to aspire to a kind of life, to see the American dream for yourself as attainable. This art provides such things, and the industry that has emerged around it has done a fairly decent job of distributing that lifestyle to the masses. Some would say the product is a watered down one, but its effects are still intense, even if those who appreciated it at its genesis claim that it has been co-opted and dumbed down.
We were more than excited, then, to enjoy Common’s newest album Nobody’s Smiling to the proverbial bone, as not only the ode to the second city that it is, but for the quality that it is, and the qualities that his music has kept over the last some 20 odd years. But this year is special, as the man who created Resurrection amongst the deluge of 1994s superlative projects has seemingly resurrected himself. He’s never been one to shy away from experimentation as Electric Circus and Universal Mind Control seemed to be trials in relative futility that seemed to have Common caught between obfuscation and cliche. While both albums were expansive meditations on the medium of Hip Hop, they were also both polarizing. Rolling Stone, The Village Voice, and The A.V. Club all gave Electric Circus scores around the 70s range according to Metacritic. Pitchforkminced no words, claiming he “plod along” duringElectric Circus on tracks that reeked of “cheap incense and leopard print upholstery.” For UMCeven HipHopDX thought the project was chock full of “simple, ordinary tracks” that teetered between preaching, “sex and shit talkin.'” Both the L.A Times and Rolling Stone were ambivalent about that effort, as well. So it’s obvious most of us aren’t ready to accept emcees in their totality. Almost all of us require a consistency of message, a similar requirement of writers in other genre’s. So Rap is then usually denied the transformative mythos available to Rock where artists can completely change personas from album to album. Charge it to the game, we guess.
We aren’t ready to toggle with the fact that Common’s “third eye,” soulquarian consciousness can step down into the gutter with us mere listeners, give or take a few misplaced synths and snares. But both Resurrection and Nobody’s Smiling find Common at his best for one simple reason: he’s functioning as an ambassador for his community and Hip Hop herself. Resurrection’s most culturally impactful song was “I Used To Love H.E.R,” a metaphorical takedown of Hip Hop’s eras and where it seemed to stray. As he tends to be, Common was prophetic, reporting the fall of Hip Hop to “the man” long before it was even possible to have happened. Seminal works like Illmatic and Ready To Die were released that very same year, and Enter The Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers was made just a year before. Rap was entering arguably its third golden age, and already Common was lamenting its “selling out,” its decline. But it is in his role as sobering cultural attache that he shines. On Nobody’s Smiling, he called it a “call to action” about “the violence going on in Chicago.” It ended up being both political and artistically provocative, asking you what Chicago gangs you’ve heard of while leaving the bottles and the models to his younger guest stars like Big Sean, the news on the ground to Lil Herb and Vince Staples, and the glitter to Jhene Aiko. He’s found a happy medium between being in the heat of the conversation like he was on Resurrection and being a bystander for dialogue and change on Nobody’s Smiling. As always he is at his best awakening you to the opportunity for growth around you without alienating you, and he is at his most cohesive and intrapersonal when standing at the gates of the community he has bet his life on. He used to love H.E.R, then, and Nobody’s Smiling shows he always will.
Andre Grant is an NYC native turned L.A. transplant who(TM)s contributed to a few different properties on the web and is now the Senior Features Writer for HipHopDX. He(TM)s also trying to live it to the limit and love it a lot. Follow him on Twitter@drejones.