When it comes to conscious rappers, Common has always stood out as one of the most genuine. The guy seems so likeable, he undoubtedly has done great work as an activist, and his rapping has been consistently great. Especially recently, as Common has been using his music as platform to speak about various social issues and the struggles of the black community. He is fresh off an Oscar win for the fantastic song “Glory” from the equally incredible film Selma and with a title like Black America Again it looked like Common was going to deliver some his hardest hitting conscious rap to date.
I think Black America Again is an album that pairs well with Solange’s latest album A Seat at the Table. Except, while that record was focused on putting a light on the personal effects of systemic racism, Common chooses to view the issue from a broader societal perspective. The first song “Joy and Peace” sees Common viewing the world in a religious way, saying he believe God will help to bring happiness onto Earth. The song comes across less preachy, and more of a hope for the future and as an introduction to the following track “Home” which I feel is the first great song here. Also linking in religious themes, Common compares himself to Moses, helping to bring black people to liberation. It is a fine line between thoughtful and arrogant but it comes off honest and when combined with the heavy production and Bilal’s excellent supporting work, the song is wonderful.
The title song is a showstopper that the record is unable to come close to for a while. Common sounds more aggressive than he has in years, tackling various subjects from police violence to systemic discrimination and it all comes across perfectly and is one of the most thoughtful rap songs of 2016. The song is able to discuss Trayvon Martin and then shortly go after Star Wars for only including one black man and still managing to make it all flow well. The jazz instrumentation gives to song an extra level of dignity before Stevie Wonder comes in on the outro and kills his one line that he is given on here.
“Red Wine” is an odd song here, I really am not sure what to make of it. It is a fairly traditional fusion of R&B and hip-hop, but lyrically it seems a little split. With Syd’s intro and Elena’s outro, both of which are beautiful, you get the feeling the song is a more intimate love song, but Common’s verse does not really play into this. His slower flow matches the relaxed energy but that is about it until the end of his verse when he ties it up a little better. While not entirely fitting the themes of the albums, “Unfamiliar” I think is a more consistent love song, especially since I feel that PJ and Common appear to have a little more chemistry.
Sandwiched between these is another album highlight “Pyramids” which has Common paying tribute to various classic hip-hop artists from A Tribe Called Quest to Public Enemy while dismissing rappers who do not come close to meeting these standards. Common’s verses are broken up by a sample of Ol’ Dirty Bastard which fit in perfectly. It is also worth noting the second verse on this song has some of Common’s most energetic delivery and it just hits strong.
Common gets introspective on “A Bigger Picture Called Free” where Common reflects on his transition from being just a rapper, to doing more activism as he has matured. He discusses the issue of mass incarceration of African-Americans primarily on here and how the system is set up against them. The desire for freedom comes across especially with Syd and Bilal’s guest work. After last week’s election, “The Day Women Took Over” feels more like a dream than I am sure Common intended. The song is also just a little weak in general, as I think Common focuses too much on making women deities rather than equals, but it is inoffensive and well-intentioned making it hard to really dislike. BJ the Chicago Kid is also great as always.
The final three songs on here are probably when the album finds its strongest footing by bringing some of the album’s best material. “Rain” reunites Common with John Legend after their Oscar win. I honestly usually feel mixed about Legend, despite his obvious talent, but here he is utilized to his fullest, really belting out his verses and the chorus here. The piano and strings add so much to his delivery, and his lyrics about walking through the pain of the world and letting it not get to you. After the election, where so many are scared, this song is the kind of uplifting anthem that has been making this week easier for me.
For those familiar with Common’s work, you should be familiar with Common’s father “Pops” who would always add his opinion on various things, helping to add sincerity on all of his albums. Sadly, since his last album, “Pops” passed away and instead of having him deliver spoken word, Common pays tribute to him with the song “Little Chicago Boy” where he raps about his father’s life and the relationship they shared. The verse is incredibly heartfelt and fans of Common will surely feel emotional when hearing it. Finally, a final recording of “Pops” is played and he says it is up to us to finish the movement he helped start. Tasha Cobbs ends the song off beautifully. This definitely feels like it could have easily been the conclusion of the record.
The album, instead, ends with what is likely to be another Oscar contender for Common with “Letter To the Free” from the powerful documentary 13th, which everyone should watch on Netflix now. The song hits the prison system in an honest way and up until Trump’s election felt beautiful. That being said, Common does drop the line “shot me with your ray-gun [Reagan]/And now you want to Trump me” which once sounded poignant and now sounds sad as racism seems to have won, in a sense. Obviously Common could not predict this and I am not criticizing the song for it, but it is definitely something people will feel when listening. The outro, featuring Bilal accompanied by a choir, ends things off incredibly powerful and just makes you want to join the fight Common has committed himself too.
Outside of the poorly written “Love Star” which jarring is put after the title track, all the songs here work to varying degrees, and when this album hits, it hits hard. Yes, some of this is preachy and slow and feels like slam poetry with great production, but that will not stop me from recommending this. The lyrics are great, the production is amazing and Common sounds more engaged than ever. It is not unfair to say this is his best work since Be and I hope this effort continues.
Best Tracks: Home, Black America Again, Pyramids, Rain, Little Chicago Boy, Letter To the Free
Worst Track: Love Star