Review: Common's Album, "Black America Again"
"Black America Again" Consciously Addresses Society's Ills
Chicago hip-hop artist and actor Common's eleventh studio album ’Black America Again’ is crammed with enlightened rap bars and full-frontal, conscious commentary. The record pointedly addresses society’s biggest, baddest ills. Like a lot of other releases from America’s major music acts this year, ‘Black America Again’ addresses racial, gender and socio-economic inequality in the US.
Naturally, ‘Black America Again’ contains no ramped up, house party-type cuts. However, Common is an alert and readied presence throughout it's playtime. The album’s hip-hop production is intricate and rich. It’s collection of efficient beats rarely overstep Common’s perceptive lyrics, which are often pushed centre-stage.
An Overall Laid-Back Vibe Rules "Black America Again"
Despite the album’s direct approach in tackling world issues, many of its cuts are laid-back and collected in terms of their overall vibe. The record’s textures are not always as bold as the opinions that overlay them. Whenever rap albums focus heavily on lofty topics, there’s always a danger of them sounding righteous and goody-goody. While ‘Black America Again’ doesn’t get too muddled in that, the album often feels measured. A slight lack of excitement surrounds ‘Black America Again’. The release doesn’t always feel stimulating.
Common isn’t a show off, or a braggart. He’s not a shameless self-publicist and the 44-year-old takes pride in that. Judging by the opening lines of the biting standout track ’Pyramids’, the rapper is content making music that is not directed solely at teenagers. Still though, just because an artist wants to elevate, inform and expand minds via hip-hop, it doesn’t mean the music shouldn’t sometimes veer into mindlessness or deliberately colour outside the lines.
The Challenging "Pyramids" is a Highlight
‘Black America Again’ would have benefited from a couple more cuts that lean in the direction of the challenging, aforementioned ‘Pyramids’, which makes use of a wild sample of rap idol Ol’ Dirty B**tard on its hooks. In a constantly evolving hip-hop environment of outlandish hustlers and animated trap crews, it’s questionable how appealing ‘Black America Again’ will be to anyone who's not already appreciative of Common’s artistic gifts. That aside, ‘Black America Again’ is home to some expertly communicated, insightful rap. The album is also enhanced by a handful of sultry, hip-hop love songs.
The Album Boasts Several Hip-Hop Love Songs
‘Love Star’ featuring Marsha Ambrosius and North Carolinian singer/songwriter PJ is outshone by ‘Red Wine’, a sensual, romantic slow jam that boasts appearances from LA singer/producer and DJ Syd Tha Kid and vocalist/flutist Elena Pinderhughes.
While ‘Red Wine’ sets the mood with gradual, heavy beatwork, Syd and Elena operate like sirens, calling for Common to come closer and “get comfortable” with them. The rapper pretty much takes a back seat to the pair’s entrancing performance - it’s all very seductive.
Stevie Wonder Guest Stars on the Record's Title Track
Over dramatic piano touches and sweeping strings, music god Stevie Wonder shows up on the LP’s title track, which probes race relations in the US. After 'Black America Again' attempts to ignite discussion around the Black Lives Matter movement and America’s police brutality incidents, Wonder chimes in with an uplifting refrain that looks positively into the future. Rather inventively, the song’s hook borrows from a vintage recording of another music god, James Brown, elaborating on the racial and social upheaval of the Sixties.
"A Bigger Picture Called Free" is a Peaceful Standout
Featuring regular collaborator, singer/songwriter and producer Bilal, as well as Syd Tha Kyd, ‘A Bigger Picture Called Free’ is a breather. The tune is an appealingly peaceful, zoned out highlight. It practically tip-toes out of the speakers. The track provides lots of space for a loungey hook from Syd to unwind, Common tops the song off with a chilled poetic, spoken word performance.
Backed by pristine vocals from PJ, ‘Unfamiliar’ describes the intensity of being crazy in love with someone. ‘Unfamiliar’ utilises a more straightforward, radio-friendly song structure, and over it’s sophisticated beatwork, Common gives a quick nod to Amy Winehouse’s ‘Valerie’.
Common Tackles Gender Inequality on "The Day Women Took Over"
Featuring John Legend, Common doesn’t fully get involved with ‘Rain’ until about halfway through it. Centred around sprite piano work, Legend kicks things off with some expressive singing. Admittedly, his contribution becomes a little too Broadway sounding - 'Rain' almost goes cheesy. Ultimately though, Legend’s boundless charm triumphs.
‘The Day Women Took Over’ features musician BJ The Chicago Kid and depicts a reality where women hold the world’s most powerful positions. The cut creatively explores how that scenario would differ from the present day. Shouting out the likes of Michelle Obama, Maya Angelou, Rosa Parks and Oprah Winfrey, Common goes on to attack the pay gap between men and women.
"Letter To The Free" Targets America's Prison System
Blessed by another guest spot from Bilal, ’Letter To The Free’ is a sombre, yet persevering meditation on today’s America. Common uses the track to bring the thirteenth amendment to the United States constitution into focus. The emcee refers back to the Slave Trade, and then explores the ways African-Americans are still enslaved in the present.
He raps, “Slavery's still alive, check Amendment 13 / Not whips and chains, all subliminal / Instead of 'ni**a’ they use the word 'criminal’”. Common goes on to point out that although the thirteenth amendment abolished slavery in 1865, it still allows for slavery to be used as a punishment for crime in US prisons. He then asks listeners, if America’s prisons are currently being systematically filled with large amounts of African-Americans, was the slavery of them ever truly eradicated? Or did it just change form?
Common Pays Tribute to His Late Father
‘Little Chicago Boy’ is a tribute to Common’s father, who passed away two years ago. Soon after the rapper spits, “though I can't touch him, I can still feel him”, a recording of his father speaking lovingly plays out. On ‘Little Chicago Boy’, Common paints a balanced, realistic picture of his dad, the potency of this picture is the album’s most impressive demonstration of the emcee's lyrical ability.
The cut’s emotional pull peaks when guest star and contemporary gospel vocalist Tasha Cobbs starts singing nearer to the song’s climax. In spite of Common’s loss, ‘Little Chicago Boy’ isn’t overwrought or devastated. The tune shines with a warm, grateful aura. More than anything else, listeners get a deep sense of just how much the rapper looked up to his Pops.