For his tenth album, Common returns to his hometown and it's not pretty.
A 23-year career has taken the US rapper around the houses, through conscious hip hop on breakthrough One Day It'll All Make Sense, psychedelic experimentation on Electric Circus and smooth Kanye West-produced R&B on Be, to name a few directions – but Nobody's Smiling is a deliberately down to earth look at his old manor Chicago.
From the top down, it's no celebration. Against grim, reverberating bass, the title track bemoans the derailment of the Black Power movement, while Speak My Piece's dying robot vocals "do it for the hometown and the homies" with little conviction. These songs are mesmeric, but not in any ecstatic way, and the tone is bleak.
What could be a powerful record though, is hamstrung by jarring echoes of better efforts. Old sparring partner Kanye looms large – at least in spirit – in the sped-up Curtis Mayfield sample of The Neighborhood, the deranged (and clearly Yeezus-influenced) Blak Majik and the committed Jesus Walks-a-like testifying of Kingdom. It's almost uncomfortable by the time the album ends with a roll-call of a life well-spent on Rewind That, so reminiscent of The College Dropout's Last Call.
Common's worth more than this. Nobody's Smiling's no shocker, but neither provides a truly original statement nor pops up with any answers. It's just a reasonably diverting listen that you've heard before.