Twenty years ago, a Chicago born-and-bred emcee revealed his heartbreak for a genre he once adored. Common unleashed his candid ode to hip-hop with his poignant record, “I Used To Love H.E.R.” It was a record that examined his daily relationship with the genre and how he feared she was being steered in the wrong direction. After two decades, Common has watched his culture blossom into an effervescent one, sparked by new talent. He himself has proven to be a catalyst in maintaining the purity of the culture.
With albums such as Like Water For Chocolate, Finding Forever, The Dreamer and The Believer, Be and his newest release, Nobody’s Smiling, Common has etched himself as one of music’s most talented writers. His exemplary lyrical ability has garnered him massive respect in the culture he helped build.
After towering to the upper echelon of rap, Common finds himself with a bigger task at hand. His hometown has been plagued by ongoing violence and an overwhelming unemployment rate. With little to no answer, Common has placed the burden and responsibility upon himself to help rejuvenate the Windy City. His most recent album, Nobody’s Smiling, is a sharp contrast from his previous endeavors. He and mega-producer, No I.D., provide a dark but deep look into the Chi by vividly detailing the city’s plight. In efforts to grow awareness, Common called on new acts including Chicago’s Lil Herb, Big Sean, Vince Staples and Jhené Aiko, to help in his battle to instill peace in his city.
After being released in July, Nobody’s Smiling has already been widely accepted and is being viewed upon as one of his best works to date. The 20-year veteran acknowledged that while his city isn’t in the best shape, its future is looking brighter than ever musically and socially.
Common sat down with us to discuss Nobody’s Smiling, the state of the city of Chicago, which albums helped restored his love for hip-hop and his personal ranking of this best albums.
What has been the overall reception for your new album, Nobody Smiling?
Common: "A lot of people been reaching out to me saying they loved the album – like it’s one of the best I’ve done. You know, today I was actually doing an interview and someone was comparing it to [my album] BE. They thought it was the best album I did since BE. You know...a lot people were like, 'Man, I’m surprised you came with this sound. It’s a fresh new sound. And you’re rapping like you’re a new artist.' I think one of the biggest things this album is accomplishing is that it’s starting to get people who weren’t Common fans – the people that didn’t know Common or Common’s music – to pay attention and actually be into it. They’re actually like, 'Wait. This dude is actually alright.' It’s a good feeling."
Your album was inspired by the violence taking place in Chicago. Do you feel this album could help to change the outlook for Chicago and its future?
"Yeah, man. I mean like, first of all, people respond to success and movement. I feel like this album has great potential to be successful. I think also music can motivate everyday people. One thing I know about this album is that it’s grimey. It’s street. But, it also has a feeling of [being able] to uplift and motivate. I think that in itself caused some change. And we want to do things that are beyond music and the videos, which honestly mean some things. Being a part of the whole component and movement to go and be active in the community. Finding out what’s needed and trying to be conducive in trying to change that and get the things that are needed. Implement it and put it into Chicago."
When you came out in 1994, with “I Used To Love H.E.R,” you were speaking about how you lost your love for music. Fast forward to now. If you could choose five albums in the past five years which restored your love in hip-hop, which albums would you choose and why?
"I would say My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy by Kanye West. I think it had all the elements of hip-hop that you love. It had the dope rhyming, hardcore beats, but he did something that was really new and progressive. He had the perfect subject matter. Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid M.a.a.D. City. That album had a story to it. The songs were unique and fresh. His perspective was fresh. I liked Chance The Rapper’s mixtape Acid Rap. I liked that because anybody sampling Slum Village, you already know that there’s something special there. (Laughs) There was something real about it and true. I loved Nas’ Life is Good. That definitely let you know that some of the classic artists still know how to make music that’s relevant. And talking about subject matter, “Daughters,” was like, 'Man!'"
That was a great record.
"To tackle that kind of subject matter, that was something that writers did back in the day, you know? You know those timeless records. People would sing songs like “Family Reunion” and “I’ll Always Love My Mama.” Those were soulful songs and records. I think “Daughters” was a song like that. Like [Pete Rock & CL’s Smooth] “T.R.O.Y. – They Reminiscence Over You” will always be there. So what Nas did with Life Is Good, he created something that was special. I think the fifth – I wouldn’t say it’s not a hip-hop album – but the fifth album that I think was under something you would say, 'Man, you could do innovative music,' was that Frank Ocean album, Channel Orange. I thought that his writing was real good. And for you to build an impact, be on the Grammys singing songs, and have an Andre 3000 on the album, it was dope, man. Those are the five albums that I feel like gave me hope in hip-hop and what Frank Ocean’s album did, gave me hope for other music as well."
Being in the music industry for over two decades, do you feel the level of subject matter is deteriorating? Or, do you feel that it has actually gotten better over time?
"Well, I don’t think there’s a big variety of subject matters, to be honest. I think early on in hip-hop, there was a phase when people would talk about dope various topics. You had N.W.A. saying, “F*** The Police”, and [Ice]Cube doing a song called, “I Ain’t The One” or “Once Upon A Time In The Projects.” You had KRS-One doing a song about talking about the Bible or peace. You had Brand Nubian talking about the Five Percent Nation. You know, it was very diverse what people were talking about. There was a time where you had some story-telling. You had Biggie’s “I Got A Story To Tell.” I don’t think right now the subject matter is as diverse. But, I do think that there’s good music out there and there’s some talents out there. I can’t name besides the artists that I named in that arena that we were just talking about; I can’t name a lot of different types of subject matter outside of [those]."
With you serving as a veteran in not only music but also to your hometown of Chicago, how do you feel about the landscape of music right now?
"Man, I think it’s pure. I think it’s raw. I think it’s real. It’s really what hip-hop has been about for years because hip-hop has always been about street music. When you get to the core, hip-hop is about street music and about people telling them what’s been going on with them, you know what I mean? Obviously, some would use their imagination and go somewhere else with it. But, at the end of the day, you’re getting a straight record about people talking about their experiences. I think that’s what you’re getting out of the drill movement in Chicago. They’re talking about what they do and what they experience and who they’re around. It’s powerful to me, man. It’s soulful. There’s something raw and soulful about it."
Rank your top five favorite albums.
"I would probably start with BE at number one. Like Water Like Chocolate would maybe be number two, or Nobody’s Smiling. I can’t tell because Nobody’s Smiling [just came] out. But, it does feel good when people are even referencing it in a sentence with BE. So, ok, let’s say We got BE. We got Like Water, Like Chocolate. We got Nobody’s Smiling. We got Finding Forever. And we got Resurrection."
With a fiery determination to supersede his contemporaries, Common’s Hall of Fame career has been solidified with his latest release, Nobody’s Smiling. Album after album, the mission for Common has been simple: grab the listener. Ten albums and over 20 years later, the formula still appears to be golden for the Chi-town veteran.