After a little more than 2 years after 2014’s Nobody’s Smiling, and following an Oscar win for Best Original Song at the 87th Academy Awards with John Legend for ‘Glory’, the theme song from the 2014 film Selma; Common has once again returned to the mic with is second album through Def Jam Recordings, the provocative and politicly charged album Black America Again. Black America Again follows on the heels of other acclaimed projects from high profile musicians who have crafted socially-conscious protest music over the past several years such as D’Angelo’s Black Messiah, Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly and even Solange Knowles A Seat at the Table just to name a few among a flurry of dozens of songs, EPs and albums from other artists. The album is especially relevant and timely amongst the backdrop of the Black Lives Matter Movement, amid several years of seemingly countless, horrific extrajudicial police killings, festering racial tensions and 18 months of a particularly ugly, virulent and violent presidential election. Common minces no words, just as he spoke on the dire and turbulent conditions that plague his home town of Chicago on Nobody’s Smiling, Common dives into the issues, challenges, and history that not only Black America is forced to confront, but also the nation as a whole as well.
As an elder statesman in the Hip-Hop Scene, Common’s 20+ year-long career in the music industry has seen a variety of changes and the Chicago bred emcee has been no stranger to metamorphosis and adaption over the span of his illustrious 11 album career run. However, Black America Again is in some ways a return to form and basics for Common as he maneuvers over the scratchy, jolting hard-hitting production that’s also smoothed out by the glimpses of electric jazz, grand sweeping pianos and string arrangements that also accompany the album’s gritty sound and stark lyrical content. A majority of the album’s production is handled by Detroit-based Jazz percussionist and Hip-Hop producer Karriem Riggins who as mentioned, adds a certain grit to the album’s already potent lyrical content along with additional co-production from producer Robert Glasper who provides assistance on select tracks and interludes throughout the album. Black America Again also boasts an extensive list of guest performers as well. Long-time collaborator Bilal makes numerous appearances throughout the album, as well as the legendary Stevie Wonder, Marsha Ambrosias, PJ, Syd tha Kyd, BJ the Chicago Kid, John Legend and Tasha Cobb. Fellow Chicago artist BJ the Chicago Kid delivers a deliciously soulful performance on ’The Day Women Took Over’ a subdued jazzy number which boasts the signature sample-heavy production reminiscent of Common’s early days.
John Legend also delivers a song performance on the heartfelt, however a bit corny ‘Rain’. Clearly trying to re-create the same grand sweeping sound heard in ‘Glory’ (which some may argue sounded a bit forced as well) the song doesn’t seem to know if it belongs on a John Legend album or on Common’s. Common doesn’t even show up on the song until well after the halfway point into the song’s runtime. While it’s hard to knock the smooth, soulful vocals of John Legend, the track just simply never completely gels together and feels like a forced collaboration to capitalize on the acclaim of ‘Glory’; which is disappointing because the song does genuinely have an uplifting quality to it and initially showed some promise. ‘Love Star’ is also another forgettable track that doesn’t match up with the rest of the album sound, save for a spacey, soulful, ambient switch up in the songs literal last minute of production.
However, Black America Again isn’t without its highlights either. ‘Home’ which features interludes of dialogue from the honorable Elijah Muhammad is a rousing, horn-infused, Boom-Bap offering where Common invoke religious imagery, as he raps about his striving to do good in the world and Black liberation in the U.S. The album’s title track featuring Stevie Wonder, making heavy use of piano and orchestral strings is an irate call for action as Common rhymes about police brutality, vigilante killings, the Flint Michigan water crises and other deliberate, systematic discrimination towards Black Americans throughout the country. Stevie Wonder’s repeated vocals throughout the track’s outro only solidifies the message echoed throughout Black America Again as a call to action for the fair and equal treatment of Black Americans which still falls on deaf ears. However, perhaps one of the most moving songs on the entire project is the album’s closing track ‘Letter to the Free’ a dark, jazz and gospel-infused ode to the past, present and uncertain future that not only awaits Black America but the nation as a whole. The song was also featured on the Netflix documentary 13th, by Selma director Ava DuVernay, which focuses on the prison system and the use of mass incarceration as a new form of slavery in America. Common reflects on past injustices suffered by the Black community at the hands of white supremacy and how even though the country has made progress in some ways it has also remained stubbornly the same in others. This is demonstrated through potent lines such as “The caged birds sings for freedom to bring/Black bodies being lost in the american dream/Blood of black being, a pastoral scene/Slavery’s still alive, check amendment 13/Not whips and chains, all subliminal/Instead of ’n****’ they use the word ‘criminal’/Sweet land of liberty, incarcerated country/Shot me with your ray-gun and now you want to Trump me.” and the imagery and whirlwind of emotions it unpacks all in a single verse are made all the more potent in a post-Ferguson; and now a post-Trump U.S. Common raps the intense vigor and conviction of a well versed scholar who has seen the past and knows what the future potentially holds as our country seemingly continues to regress backward with every single passing day.
As mentioned before though, the album, unfortunately, isn’t without its low moments and does fall slightly flat at times that isn’t made any better by the album’s rather uneven pacing. The production as well doesn’t always seem to match up either; which only further adds to the album’s uneven nature. Production has always seemed to be Common’s Achilles heel, especially when he’s not granted the leeway to work with a variety of producers on a given project, oftentimes leading to some songs just blending together with one another and it shows from time to time here on Black America Again. Not that the production from Karriem Riggins and Robert Glasper is bad, but again, the album suffers either from uneven pacing or lingering monotony, so even when a good track does come up it’s oftentimes followed up by throwaway or snoozer which simply fails to carry on the momentum. All that being said, the album does manage to muster up a few strong moments and in the end, the good does outweigh the bad. At 15 tracks with a total run time of just over 56 minutes, Common’s Black America Again is a passionate, jolting, if, at times uneven, exploration not only celebrating Black culture and Afrocentricity but the historic and current Black experience in America. In a post-Trump era, it seems messages and uplifting voices from performers and icons in the industry such as Common are needed now more than ever and will continue to ring true for the foreseeable future.
Black America Again is available now to purchase in stores & to stream on Tidal, Spotify, Apple Music &iTunes.