In a Hip Hop culture driven by youth, Common
has somehow been able to construct a place for himself as a grown up. He is one of a small cohort of similarly grown up rappers, including greats such as Jay Z, Nas, and Scarface, who have been able to transition their music from its wild beginnings, to reflect the mature adults they are today. While most of his peers are just now finding their place as adults in Hip Hop, Common has been playing a more mature role for quite some time. From his beginnings as an underground artist, Common emerged as part of the Native Tongues movement, a sprawling collective of Hip Hop artists dedicated to Black empowerment and unity. Throughout his extensive career, he has released quality music which unflinchingly communicates his political and personal beliefs with few missteps (Electric Circus
being one of the few). He has branched into acting, gaining lead roles in smaller films and supporting roles in Hollywood blockbusters. In his last full length project, Nobody Smiling,
Common reached out to the youth, working with artists like Vince Staples and G Herbo to address the new generation of violence plaguing poor communities, specifically in his hometown of Chicago, and tying them to larger ideas of struggle against a classist and racist system. Though the attempt was laudable, the finished product lacked consistency, and the message was often lost in an attempt to create more relevant music.
In some ways Black America Again
addresses the same ideas as on his last project, but from a wider perspective. From the title, it is clear that this album is intended to truly capture the essence of Black existence and expression in America. As a white guy, I am woefully unequipped to judge if this is a complete picture, though I suspect, considering the vast diversity of Black American experiences, a complete picture would be impossible. However, it seems clear that through the lyrics on this album, Common is attempting to weave as many of the disparate parts of Black American history and culture he can into one tapestry. In the title track, Common draws a line that connects slavery to mass incarceration to inner city violence to PTSD. A line that ties lynching to police brutality, The Great Migration to gentrification. He makes it clear that the problems affecting Black communities today do not exist in a vacuum, but are the result of centuries of government policy. Though he discusses this theme in a number of songs, Common is not focused only on the struggle, but also on the power and creativity of Black communities. In songs like "A Bigger Picture Called Free," Common ties rappers like Andre 3000 to Civil Rights activists, listing them both in the same breath. He also makes reference to Black leaders and ideologies throughout the album, name dropping Noble Drew Ali and Rosa Parks and referencing Black American ideologies like the Black Hebrews and the Five Percent Nation. He also manages to tie in ideas of Black feminism and even references Black Latin@s in "Red Wine," a group of Black Americans often left out of these discourses. Despite the high minded nature of these references and ideas, Common never allows this album to become merely a history lesson, and drives home the personal nature of this cultural history through his story, the story of his friends, and powerfully through the story of his late father Lonnie "Pops" Lynn, who has spread wisdom on many previous Common albums. The later results in one of the best songs on the album, "Little Chicago Boy," in which he recalls his father's story, the impact the man had on him, and gives him one last chance to share his unique and potent worldview.
Musically, the album creates this same tapestry, marrying classic boom bap Hip Hop beats and lyrical rap with gospel, soul, jazz, spoken word, and R&B. Rather than enlisting a number of up and coming rappers, like on his last album, Common is the only rapper on this project. Instead, Common uses his features to bring a bevy of talented singers onto this project. Up and coming West Coast R&B singer PJ shines on this album, especially when she teams up with the established Marsha Ambrosius on the soulful love song "Love Star." Other vocal guests like Bilal, Syd the Kid, BJ The Chicago Kid, John Legend, and gospel singer Tasha Cobb all come through with the type of high quality performances one would expect from them. Somehow, Common manages to get Stevie Wonder to sing the chorus of his title track, in an amazing vocal performance. Common's use of complex lyricism and deft wordplay further adds the Hip Hop element to the album. His lyrics are sharp overall, only really faltering on the ODB-sampling lyrical exercise "Pyramids," in which he devolves almost to self-parody with his "lyrical-miracle-spiritual" rhymes. Through himself and these artists, all different but distinctly Black genres, Common is able to create a tapestry of Black music on which to lay down his message.
But Common does not form this collage of Black life and culture merely to gaze at it, he creates it so he can comment upon this cultural history and inject his own philosophy on how to address oppression. Through his lyrics, his ideology becomes apparent; that rectifying the problems in Black communities requires a philosophy that includes equal parts anti-materialism, social justice, self respect, religion, and love. He doesn't ignore or brush aside the anger of the oppressed, recognizing it in himself in songs like "Letter To The Free," but he maintains that love - of one's self, one another, and God - is the ultimate path to salvation. To Common, love is an incredibly important part of the Black experience, as seen in his inclusion of love songs like "Love Star" and "Unfamiliar," and it is the unlimited love and compassion of women that he sees as the ultimate salvation. This view is crystallized in his utopian vision, "The Day Women Took Over." The track envisions a world free of conflict and wars caused by male egos, in which women control the world, and peace and justice are obtained. Common's dream is of a world in which the oppressed gain control, a world he sees as only possible through love, God, and challenging the powers that wish to maintain the status quo. He forms this philosophy into a manifesto in the final song of the album, "Letter To The Free" where he spells out that freedom will only be achieved when we all free one another, and when we find compassion for one another.