Common is a constant presence; he’s always doing something. Releasing an album here, writing poetry with Michelle Obama there, producing and acting in film and TV somewhere in between. Last week, the Chicago-born man, a man markedly uncommon, released an amazingly relevant and vital album. Black America Again is his eleventh album, and it is everything it promised to be.
Common’s lazy flow and pinpoint metrics have been his gift to us since day one, dating back to his days with the Soulquarians, where he plied a trade rubbing shoulders with the likes of Mos Def, Q-Tip, J Dilla and Talib Kweli to name a few. It was with the Soulquarians that he really learned to wind his words around the rhythm and infuse beats with melodies. This month’s release embodies all of Common’s past and blows the top off with its powerful content. He answered the call of another member of the neo-soul supergroup, Questlove, who cried out for more protest music in response to the ongoing oppression of minorities in the US. We’ve since seen Kendrick, D’Angelo, Knowles’ Beyoncé and Solange, all asking big questions and telling big truths. Black America Again is Common’s contribution to this proud, creative environment within the Black Lives Matter movement.
Album opener Joy and Peace featuring Bilal is uplifting, positive and poignant. The rhythmic, plucky bassline is constant and takes nothing away from the lyrics or Bilal’s homely soul-searching. The song fades out to “turn your light on, turn your light on,” setting up the record perfectly.
Title track Black America Again is unbridled, undisguised protest. The keys that dabble over the top of the boom-bap build an epic, euphoric feel that captures the importance and power of Common’s message. A James Brown excerpt is chopped up for the bridge: “You know, you know, you know, one way of solving a lot of problems that we’ve got is to let a person feel like somebody. And a man can’t get himself together until he knows who he is, and be proud of what and who he is and where he come from, and where he come from.”
Later, Stevie Wonder is heard in the outro, repeating “We are rewriting the black American story” no less than 12 times. It’s almost symbolic of the fact that no matter how many times it’s brought up, the people who matter and can create change don’t seem to get the message.
The song’s video is an ambient 21-minute procession of raw passion which shows intermittent clips of Common dropping his verses over a stripped back beatbox and drum.
Syd of Odd Future/The Internet and vocalist Elena Pinderhughes both feature on Red Wine, a tune layered with high note synths and stabby perks; it is melodic to the moon and back. Each artist has their own verse, while Common uses the opportunity to make amends, having left Oprah Winfrey hanging after winning an Academy Award. “On a plane drinking wine with Oprah/when I missed the dap I ain’t mean to insult her.”
Syd and Bilal both feature again on A Bigger Picture Called Free, about the struggle and melancholy in enlightenment. Common paints a picture of growing older in an environment where perception is seemingly everything, and Syd and Bilal are harrowingly beautiful.
Sometimes protest albums can go from good to great due to relevance to world events. It really strikes a timely nerve and capture the emotion of a moment. Common’s album has come at that moment. A beautiful, strong, electrifying protest, Black America Again is fighting the cause with love. It’s Common’s best album in a long while, one that will undoubtedly remain bright in the minds (and ears) of many.