With his eleventh studio album Black America Again, Common joins the vast collection of powerful black voices rising in protest for black lives. Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp A Butterfly, D'Angelo's Black Messiah, Beyoncé's Lemonade and, most recently, Solange's A Seat At The Table have all been timely bodies of work that capture the nuanced, emotional state of black America. But while the Chicago-bred rapper-turned-Hollywood star and activist also paints a vivid picture of past and present ills plaguing the black community ("Southern leaves, southern trees we hung from"), he mostly emboldens black America's power to rewrite its own narrative.
Produced largely by Detroit drummer-slash-producer Karriem Riggins, the politically charged follow-up to 2014's Nobody Smiling -- the 15-track LP that arguably returned the Oscar winner back to his peak conscious rap form -- welcomes elements of black music, from jazz and neo-soul to R&B and boom-bap hip-hop. Against this sonic backdrop, and with help from its excellent ensemble of talented collaborators -- including Stevie Wonder, Bilal, Syd the Kid, John Legend, Marsha Ambrosius, PJ, Robert Glasper and Elena Pinderhughes -- Comm dedicates bars to celebrating blacks' rich collective history and his own with an unforgettable ode to his father Lonnie Lynn.
The LP is stacked with soothingly hopeful instrumentation and black excellence but at its core, it's not short on reflecting the genuine anger and devastation of these times when "Black lives matter" is the mantra. On the piano- and drum-laden title track featuring Wonder, Common explains the ways in which blacks have been dehumanized in this country, including their access to poor food options and unclean water, institutionalized racism and even those brainwashed into believing something as trivial as a nice car signifies freedom. "Instead of educate, they'd rather convict the kids/As dirty as the water in Flint, the system is," he raps.
On tracks like "Pyramids" and "A Bigger Picture Called Free," he flexes his most laser-sharp lyricism (and aggression) in an attempt to lead his people to greener, wiser pastures. "I'ma put a hyphen on your name/Rapper, actor, activist," he raps over resounding horns on the prophetic Bilal-assisted "Home." "You the one that can reach into the black abyss/Stars that's asterisks, show 'em what a classic is."
Over Common's 20-plus-year career, his lyrical exercises have awakened and enlightened, and on Black America Again, it's no different. A masterful poet, he unleashes backlash at generations worth of oppression while also shedding light on the modern-day greatness that is Serena Williams, Ta-Nehisi Coates and Ava Duvernay, with whom he produced a 21-minute short film. He saturates almost every rhyme with an extensive cultural history lesson you'd be hard pressed to find drip from another rapper -- "anointed singers, like Nina, Marvin, Billie, Stevie," "Fred Hampton's agenda" and soundbites from James Brown, Louis Farrakhan and Ol' Dirty Bastard.
He provides an expansive springboard for black America's next chapter. But what exactly does that look like?
Though Common asserts that spreading love and powering our own message is key, he questions what actually resembles better days. In an attempt to envision freedom in its totality, he lays plenty of responsibility and credit at the feet of black women. On the soulful "The Day Women Took Over" featuring BJ The Chicago Kid, he fantasizes a day when women fix years of shattered families, racist systems and inequality. "No longer over your shoulder do you have to look over/Imagine, war is now over," he spits. "Mothers get medals for being courageous soldiers/On dollars, it's Michelle Obama, Oprah and Rosa/The mayor, the shah is Liz Dozier." It's extremely imaginative yet in tandem with the other lighter, for-the-ladies moments on the project (a groovy "Love Star," airy "Red Wine" and shimmering "Unfamiliar"), its message is simply that black women -- and black love -- are the guiding light to unity and justice.
Surely Common's not exactly revolutionary in his call-to-action, but with this body of wokeness, filled to the brim with pride in black America's roots, he does push the larger conversation in an optimistic direction that strays from a tired narrative that blacks aren't a vibrant and vital part of society. As always, the wordsmith's dense rhymes require several spins to consume all the gems, but if nothing else, hear Common's rally cry for change, a dynamic shift he assumes on the album's closing statements, "Letter To The Free," which is not too far off.