A review of Common’s new politically-charged album, which came out last month. This review comes from Ed “STATS” Houghton (Pitchfork), dated Nov. 4th, 2016.
This is Common’s best album in years…
Common’s dissonant, politically-charged new album Black America Again finds him angry and off-balance — which feels like it’s exactly where he should be.
At 11 albums strong, Common’s career has passed through so many stages that he’s got a trail of shed skins, including two or three different rappers (and half a rock star) along the way. So when his later-period albums, from 2014’s tough and sorrowful Nobody’s Smiling to this week’s striking Black America Again, are called a return to form for the Chicago-bred MC, it may be important to clarify which form he’s returning to, and establish some signposts for hearing an album as momentous as this one is.
Back in 2014, Common’s frequent collaborator Questlove called for a revival of protest music in the wake of a grand jury’s decision not to indict the police officer who killed Eric Garner. Scarcely two years on, ugly racial rhetoric has characterized a seemingly endless campaign season, outrage over extrajudicial police killings has taken on a sort of sick rhythm, and it’s actually hard to remember a world where there was a shortage of protest music. D’Angelo’s Black Messiah, Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly and Solange’s A Seat at the Table, among others, have upended expectations and reinvigorated and expanded the category frames (hip-hop, soul or simply black music) placed around them.
This is important context for listening to Black America Again, partly because great albums from the Okayplayer/Soulquarian family seem to come in waves—and there is a strong case to be made that Black America Again is to Black Messiah what Like Water for Chocolate was to the 2000-era classics Voodoo and Things Fall Apart. Some of the big-room soul flourishes (courtesy of John Legend and BJ the Chicago Kid) trend toward the thematically safer sound that characterized Com’s Oscar winning Selma song; a touch expected—corny, even—if still emotionally stirring. But overall Karriem Riggins’ gritty, moody production provides Com with his most eclectic (and apt) sonic backing since Kanye’s production on Be. It may also be the angriest—and not coincidentally, sharpest lyrically—we’ve seen Com since his Ice Cube dis “Bitch in Yoo”—warmed-over beefs with Drake notwithstanding.
Yet there is clearly more to Black America Again than just ripped-from-the-headlines timeliness. After all, in a season when #BlackLivesMatter is at the front of the public consciousness, pretty much every artist who shows up to the BET Awards (and a bunch who didn’t) has adopted the appropriate signifiers of Woke-ness—right down to erstwhile Rubber Band Man T.I.—without necessarily touching artistic greatness. It is, in fact, the way the current mood dovetails with Common’s personal story arc that gives it its power. After prophetically calling on America to “Impeach [Bush] and elect Obama” on Jadakiss’ 2004 “Why” remix, Com has arguably spent the Obama years seeking a worthy opponent for his battle skills—and failing to locate one. The bloodshed and racial tension of 2015-16 have finally focused his considerable firepower. It also doesn’t hurt that it was helmed by the brilliant Karriem Riggins, the Detroit-based drummer who has been a staple of Common’s live band for years—and who has truly stepped into his own with his production work here.
Riggins works firmly in the post-metric genre-verse first explored by J Dilla, but he is one of the few beatmakers who can truly hang with the master. His sonically grungy, emotionally and rhythmically complex arrangements push Com’s flow into an off-balance, never-quite-slipping dance that will be familiar to longtime fans as Com’s zone. From the moment he stepped on the scene in the early ’90s, Com has been a sharp battle rapper, noted for laying down bars in solid combinations of gut-punches like a prize fighter, yet capable of a sort of tipsy whimsy when he allows himself to be loose.
This is exactly the side of Common that Riggins’ compositions bring out of him, and for the first 10 tracks or so, the album flows along flawlessly. Frenetic drum patterns rush ahead of the beat even as noodle-y electric jazz textures and screwed vocal samples pull backward at different speeds, interrogating the meter of “straight” time in ways that recall Dilla’s drunken drums. Bilal’s vocals add another layer of virtuosic dissonance to several tracks while Common’s Yoda-like constructions (“As dirty as the water in Flint the system is”) create internal rhyme schemes and tripping-into-the-next bar rhyme schemes in counterpoint with the off-kilter beats.
The chemistry is so right, in fact, it’s enough to make you re-evaluate Com’s career arc, at least since 2000. For many fans his artistic growth peaked in the Soulquarian era, then spun out on Electric Circus where he maybe got a bit too loose. In this reading of Common’s story arc, recent outings (2011’s The Dreamer/The Believer; 2014’s Nobody’s Smiling) are less comeback triumphs than back-to-basics bootcamps, or the solid road-game victories he needed before he regained the confidence to stretch out and loosen up a little again.
The single and title track “Black America Again” is a brilliant case in point; huge piano chords overpower a drum break that is EQ’ed into such crispy upper reaches of the treble range that it threatens to disappear, an inversion of all conventional pop or hip-hop logic. Even Stevie Wonder’s relentlessly melodious voice is chopped and phrased in unexpected ways and Com’s delivery channels the spoken-word of his idols the Last Poets in a way that stands alongside his very best verses: “You know, you know we from a family of fighters/Fought in your wars and our wars/You put a nigga in Star Wars/Maybe you need two/And then maybe then we’ll believe you.”
Momentum falters a bit on “The Day Women Took Over” a well-meaning narrative that posits woman-power as the solution to all problems but reduces them to embodiments of abstract virtues, rather than identities or agents of their own desires, reminiscent of Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq. But Common finds his footing again with “Little Chicago Boy” (the requisite variation on “Pop’s Rap”) and “Letter to the Free,” which serves as a sort of closing argument. If it ends the album on a more sedate note, the choice feels deliberate, reminding us that in his most inspiring moments, Common is swinging at the Big Questions of our time, and that even his loose improvisations are still part of a larger project.
It’s very much worth unpacking that project, since it both dovetails with and cuts against the grain of modern Black activist thought. Common has in fact taken heat for suggesting in interviews that Black people should respond to racism by “extending my hand in love.” Even as he gives voice to his hurt and anger and eloquently runs down the undeniable crimes committed against Black Americans, he seems to be asking again throughout the album’s lyrics what freedom could even look like in this America—and time and again he suggests that freedom itself is an act of improvisation, of imagination, that begins now: “We write our own story.”
It’s in the context of these bigger ideas that Com lands some of his biggest gut-punches of all time, while rapping in his simpler, prize fighter mode: “No consolation prize for the dehumanized/For America to rise/It’s a matter of Black lives/And we gon’ free them so we can free us…”—bringing home again the sheer magnitude of the forces he’s been dancing with all along.
Edwin “STATS” Houghton