After 11 albums, listeners thought they had pretty much heard everything Common has to offer, but with his newest project, the rap legend ascends to new heights, delivering a fresh experience during a tumultuous time.
As one of hip hop’s renowned lyricists and social and political activists, Common has delivered some of rap’s most poignant music on racial divides, gentrification and civil rights since his debut album Can I Borrow a Dollar? came out in 1992. Twenty-four years later and with a plethora of diverse projects behind him, Common is still moving at full force, releasing Black America Again, yet another impressive studio project.
Black America Again, as you can tell from its title, is unapologetically black. The jazz, rap and neo-soul vibes hearken back to early hip hop and will likely draw comparisons to Kendrick Lamar’s modern masterpiece To Pimp a Butterfly, while reminding listeners of groups such as A Tribe Called Quest and Organized Konfusion. Considering Common has traditionally adhered to the styles and trends of conscious rap, preferring for his songs to stand as poetic statements rather than pop music, the addition of jazz-based beats and influences is a more than welcome addition.
To accomplish this task, Common has surrounded himself with soulful collaborators including Bilal on the album’s first two tracks and Stevie Wonder on the title track. Incorporating instrumentation from the lesser-known jazz drummer/producer Karriem Riggins and pianist/producer Robert Glasper, Common feels like the conductor of an orchestra rather than a detail-obsessed control freak, bringing to mind the collaboration styles of rappers such as Kanye West and Jay Z.
Although most people won’t agree with everything Common has to say about the status of modern America and the potential solutions to the nation’s racial issues, it’s his positivity and perseverance that make this project stand out. Kicking off the LP with its lushest song, “Joy & Peace,” Common makes it obvious that sound is just as important as message. Tracks such as “Little Chicago Boy” add variety, incorporating out-of-the-ordinary instrumentation such as an acoustic guitar and strange, sparse drum machines. As Common reminisces about his late father Lonnie Lynn Sr., a regular theme in many of his most colorful and emotional songs, he reveals his softer side.
To close the album, Common dives into the mind of a prisoner writing a letter to his friends on the outside, building off melancholic piano and booming drums to create a bold conclusion to his LP. The album’s title track “Black America Again” focuses heavily on police brutality and inequality in society, calling on icons from Trayvon Martin to Maria Sharapova to make Common’s case. Bringing to mind the political climate in the United States, Common declares, “From schools to prison, y’all, they tryna pipe us, Tell your political parties invite us, Instead of making voting laws to spite us.” Considering the context of this album and the 2016 presidential election, it’s hard to miss Common’s message.
Black America Again proves that even though Common might be known nowadays as a Hollywood actor and producer, he can still hold more than his own as an artist. His skills on the mic are fluid, and the man has his finger on the pulse of modern issues in a racially divided society, allowing him to craft one of the most confident and poised hip hop albums of the year.