In ‘Nobody’s Smiling,’ Common Addresses The Violence That Has Been Ripping Through His Native Chicago

By Gerrick D. Kennedy

Los Angeles Times


Common has already lighted up the awards season with his powerful perseverance anthem “Glory.”

Taken from the historical drama “Selma,” the single he created with R&B singer John Legend that connects past injustice with present unrest has taken the rapper to victories at the Golden Globes and Critics’ Choice Awards and is considered a front-runner for the original song Academy Award.

Before the Feb. 22 Oscars, Common and Legend are slated to perform “Glory” on Sunday’s Grammy telecast. But could the song’s success steer Common to his first win for rap album at the Grammy Awards? It should.

Thus far, the conversation about who will take the rap trophy has tightly focused on Iggy Azalea. Can the breakout star beat veteran hip-hop peers? Does she even deserve to win?

Azalea, the pop-leaning Australian rapper, had an undeniably big year. Her breakout single “Fancy” dominated pop radio and was arguably the song of summer (it’s also up for record of the year).

But despite Azalea’s effervescent debut album, “The New Classic,” Common has eclipsed her buzz with “Selma.” It also happens that his Grammy-nominated album, “Nobody’s Smiling,” is the most important rap full-length from 2014.

At a time when few mainstream rappers are embracing the genre’s political and socioeconomic roots, it’s hard to ignore the timeliness of Common’s work.

Taking cues from Chicago’s gang and gun-torn South Side, Common offers a gripping meditation on the senseless nihilism that is tearing through his native city at a furious, mind-blowing rate.

Nationally, racial tensions have reached their latest tipping point following the deaths of Michael Brown, John Crawford, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice and many more unarmed black citizens whose lives were lost at the hands of police officers. Common’s album couldn’t have arrived at a more crucial moment.

As civil unrest, demonstrations and hashtag activism — such as the powerful Black Lives Matter movement — have given power to a generation exhausted and gripped by what’s happening across the nation, Common’s “Nobody’s Smiling” provides a timely soundtrack.

What’s more, with “Nobody’s Smiling,” Common offers a necessary discourse on the subject. There’s no moralizing or attempts to button solutions on the disasters unfolding in Chicago. Instead, he gives brutal insight into the desperate actions that have turned the city into an urban war zone.

At 42, and decades past his years inhabiting these South Side streets, Common deftly counters bittersweet memories with harsh realities and manages to deliver some of his strongest storytelling in years.

“I’m from Chicago, nobody’s smiling…. Where the chief and the president come from / Pop out, pop pills, pop guns / On the deck when the ops come / Pop some, ops run / This ain’t a game … ain’t no options / … selling on the block like an auction,” he raps on the album’s title track.

“Nobody’s Smiling” weaves together bleak but thoughtful narratives of violence, drugs and street life — a stark difference from the uplifting spirit of “Glory.” But hopefully the song’s stunning battle cry has pushed voters to revisit the complexity of the darker side of gun violence, an uncomfortable but crucial topic that can no longer be ignored.

Common’s 10th album certainly hasn’t come close to matching the commercial success or cultural cachet of the other nominated discs (Eminem, Childish Gambino, Wiz Khalifa and Schoolboy Q are also in the running).

Nor does the record push the evolution of a regional sound the way Schoolboy’s grimy “Oxymoron” boosts the new class of West Coast rap, and the album doesn’t have the cult cool of Gambino’s “Because the Internet” or the stoner grandstanding of Khalifa’s “Blacc Hollywood” — not that that’s necessarily a selling point.

And yet, this should be Common’s year.

“Nobody’s Smiling” offers insight into the brutality of gang violence without glamorizing or passing judgment. Forget the fancy new trends. For a rapper hitting the quarter-century mark in his career to churn out a muscular and inspiring album this current makes it a work worth championing.

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