Meet the New Faces on Common’s “Nobody’s Smiling” (A Guest Verse Album Review)


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These days you can't throw a rock with out hitting a pissed off, grumpy old emcee. Seemingly every day, a veteran emcee comes out and denounces the new generation of hip-hop artists and fans for not staying true to the roots. In reality, though, hip-hop is doing just fine; just because it wasn't made in 1995 doesn't mean it ain't dope!

At the tender age of 42, and the author of some straight classics about just this subject (exhibit A) Common could easily be one of those grumpy old emcees, but his new album, Nobody's Smiling, sends a different, more unified message. Common is one of the most-respected emcees in the game, he could (and has) worked with the likes of Kanye and The Roots, so you might be surprised to find out that only two of the nine guests on Smiling have a full album of their own under their belt; Malik Yousef and Big Sean. That's it.

First off, excellent work Common. Sure, these were probably label influenced placements  - Cocaine 80's is No I.D.s baby and Vince Staples is a Def Jam emcee - but it's a smart move. This album has a darker, more modern feel than the Common I'm used to, but it still works, in large part thanks to this youth movement which helps Common transition into a different sound. Don't worry, though; Common is still the same old Common. Just think of it like putting an Xbox in a Cadillac. It will still run the same, but now it will get the kids attention.

So with that in mind, while a lot of words are going to be spilled about Common and the album, many of them on this site, for the sake of this article I want to focus on the new artists he's so conciously putting on; for many, this could be your first real introduction to these artists. So let's take a look at the youth movement on Nobody's Smiling.

Cocaine 80's  | @fauntleroy

While they don't have an LP, Cocaine 80's is no stranger to an EP or seven (well, four, actually). Cocaine 80's is more a collective than any one person, but to me it's James Fauntleroy's vocals that give 'em that edge. For the hip-hop head, who has their head buried in sand boom-bap, Fauntleroy's vocals might sound a little too soft - I know they did for me at first because I generally don't go for light, pop-oriented vocals - but there's something intoxicating about them that makes listening over and over just irresistible. Plus, his voice (which really is the essence Cocaine 80's) is very versatile. It works alongside Common's vivid depictions of the stark Chicago streets ("The Neighborhood") and on more pop-influenced cuts like "This Can't Be A Crime." It's no wonder Cocaine 80's is all over Common's album; if you are trying to appeal to a younger, broader demographic, what better way to get someone interested than an amazing supporting vocalist?

Elijah Blake | @SirElijahBlake

Hey, look at that! A Common-Elijah collab that pre-dates "Real," "X.O.X" was my first introduction to Elijah, and it's all I needed to become a fan of his work. I still have that record in steady rotation. This dude has a sound made for hooks. It's probably why he has been featured alongside the likes of Rick Ross, Game and J.Cole. Sometimes voices take an adjustment to get used to (see James Fauntleroy), but not Blake; it's so easy to be taken by his soulful crooning. If you don't like "Towers Of Tokyo" right from the start, you probably don't deserve your set of ears. This Roc Nation crooner is definitely one to watch.

Jhene Aiko | @JheneAiko

If you don't know Aiko by now we can't be friends. Once you listen to this, send me a hand-written apology and an edible arrangement and maybe...maybe I won't hate you forever.

Lil' Herb | @LilHerbie_Ebk

I was skeptical. I had heard Lil' Herb's name a few times, but I never gave him the time of day because frankly drill hip-hop couldn't be further from my personal tastes in music. When his verse on "The Neighborhood" kicked in I closed my eyes and braced for impact; no impact. It wasn't great, but it certainly was not as bad as I had feared. The griminess to his voice works well as a change of pace. And while Chicago drill music isn't my thing, Common's co-sign got me to give an artist a chance I hadn't before, and that is influence. 

Snoh Aalegra | @snohofficial

Like Herb, Snoh hasn't been featured on DJBooth, but unlike Herb I have no idea why. (Take your complaints up with DJ Z.) I have a soft spot for female vocalists, so this was the one collaboration I was most curious about. Snoh's contribution is only really for the first 20 seconds of "Hustle Harder," but I had a feeling she was one to check out. I was right. According to her Twitter she is but a fledging bird "under the wings of No I.D.," but I think she's ready to fly. Besides "Burning Bridges" she doesn't have much original content available to consume (look, some YouTube covers), but she is definitely a raw talent. She has the production value and the skills, now all that is left is more music; a 20 second guest spot doesn't suffice! I'm in love!

Dreezy | @dreezydreezy

Honestly, it's hard to follow up Snoh. Making it worse, Dreezy is on the same diva-dedicated track "Hustle Harder," but I guess it's fitting considering the concept. Dreezy sounds good; I have nothing bad to say, but nothing great either. I obviously wasn't immediately sold like I was on Snoh, so before I committed one way or another, I had to check out more. I think she's definitely a mainstream/radio-ready emcee. She's tried the grimy stuff (see "Chiraq"), but I'm not sure that works. I'm much more likely to listen to a song like "Up & Down" than "Chiraq" becuase the vibe is much lighter; throw Elijah on a hook and you've got yourself a nice, catchy number. There are more compelling features on this album, but there is also some real potential here. Regardless, once again Common has gone out of his way to put on a young Chicago artist. 

Vince Staples | @vincestaples

We have heard Vince's name a ton recently. I am lucky enough to actually be in Chicago right now as I pen this feature, which means dip dish pizza with Z, and as he informed me, these features might be the work of the label machine. Case in point, Vince Staples. I'm not saying that he doesn't fit, or that his involvement doesn't run with the whole youth movement idea, but I'm not sure if Staples, a Def Jam artist, was the best choice. I know Common says otherwise, but I'm sticking to my guns. He can rap, but his flow gets drown out by the song's boisterous production and Common's stalwart flow. After checking out a few of his solo record (and one with Bad Rabbits) I was much more impressed. I think Scoop DeVille's creation on "Nate" (see above) fits him much better. Also, notice the James Fauntleroy vocals? Bonus points for not one, but two Nobody's Smiling guests whippin' up something nice. 

I'm not here to debate the legacy of Common or how many spins Nobody's Smiling should get (I'll give it 4 if you're wondering), I'm merely here to take at look at people involved not named Common, Big Sean, or No I.D. As someone who is always concerned about where hip-hop has been and where it's going, it's great to see an artist like Common embracing a new generation of artists.

Those old, curmudgeony emcees should take notes. Instead of complaining about how the new generation is ruining hip-hop, do what Common did. Use your talent and wisdom to guide and bring out the best of these budding stars. That's the greatest way to bridge the gap, which will keep hip-hop progressing while never forgetting where it came from. That way, everybody is smiling.

[Lucas Garrison is a writer for DJBooth.net. His favorite album is “College Dropout,” but you can also tweet him your favorite Migos songs at @LucasDJBooth.]

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Written by Lucas G. on 07/21/14

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