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Unless you’ve been living under a rock somewhere it’s clear that over the last decade hip-hop has been rapidly evolving, so much so that if you look away even in the slightest you might miss its next big move. So then, what do we make of Common’s newest attempt at staying relevant? Read more after the jump.

To echo Kanye West: hip-hop is the new rock n’ roll. It’s rare for an artist to adapt to its pop culture infiltration over a lengthy career though. That isn’t to say veteran rappers who struggle to stay with the times should become sacrificial lambs.

Particularly in the case of a rapper like Common, who’s gone through his fair share of stylistic transformations and shifts, it’s obvious why many early followers have forgotten his reputation as a Grade A lyricist. He’s gone from the Chicago underground scene to being a pivotal member of the socially and consciously informed collective Soulquarians while dropping a seminal hit (Like Water for Chocolate), to being sidelined via back-to-back duds (Finding Forever, Universal Mind Control) while casually keeping busy appearing in Gap ads and supporting roles in Hollywood blockbusters.

Recent flops notwithstanding, with the announcement of each new album listeners have no qualms rooting for their unsung rap hero. Even if they don’t know exactly what Common might show up. 

And it’s that exact unpredictability in Common’s 20-plus year career that gives his tenth full length studio album its much needed silver lining. Nobody’s Smiling finds Common three years removed from The Dreamer/The Believer, which was seen as a sort of return to form for Common whose previous two studio efforts were viewed as tired and weighed by lazy lines (“like my daughter found Nemo,” “driving herself crazy like the astronaut lady”). In addition, on Nobody’s Smiling Common again wisely teamed up with producer No I.D., their second go round after a 14 year hiatus. And it’s thanks to No I.D.’s handy work on the boards that not only keeps the album moving at a comfortable pace, but also brings out the very best in Common as an MC.

There’s a focus on Nobody’s Smiling so earnest that it’s palpable; whether it’s the unfriendly title or stark cover, Nobody’s Smiling harkens back to Common’s heyday as not only an important bard, but also as necessary cultural leader. Nobody’s Smiling finds Common back in his hometown Chicago, a city notoriously plagued by gang violence. Take opening cut “The Neighborhood” a track that deals head-on with the grim state of his city. However, Common surprisingly doesn’t sound dated or out of touch on the Curtis Mayfield heavy sampled track, and with a little help from contemporary Chicago rapper Lil Herb the song has a youthful viewpoint. It’s interesting to note that Lil Herb, who’s 18, wasn’t even born when Common released his debut album, yet the two parallel their hometown images, further proving that the inner-city struggles are real and not a trend.

Lil Herb isn’t the only young guest making an appearance on Nobody’s Smiling, as Common also recruits Big Sean, Southern California MC Vince Staples and soulstress Jhené Aiko. The inclusion of the aforementioned helps Common do something he’s never done before: place himself on their level instead of simply performing righteousness. Nobody’s Smiling remains fervent throughout its ten tracks and the brisk 40 minutes allows for every rhyme to hit hard as they pack a serious punch. In retrospect the album’s closing track “Rewind That” is out of place, finding Common actually cracking a smile for once, it is still a deftly composed piece of storytelling from the veteran as he recounts his close friendship with the late J Dilla. As unexpectedly warm and touching a finish to a Common album since 2005′s revered Be.

 

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