Politically conscious black music has sounded rejuvenated in recent years, with artists like Janelle Monáe, D’Angelo, Kendrick Lamar, Beyoncé and Solange all producing powerful statements documenting the African-American experience. Taking inspiration from ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’, as well as Ava DuVernay’s documentary ’13TH’, and authors Ta-Nehisi Coates (‘The Beautiful Struggle’) and Michelle Alexander (‘The New Jim Crow’), ‘Black America Again’ sees Common stepping up to the mic to have his say on the state of race relations in the United States today.
Revolving around the notion of black freedom and America’s refusal to confront its own history, the Chicago-born rapper reflects upon institutionalised racism, slavery, mass incarceration, black feminism, police brutality and the murders of black men and women like Trayvon Martin and Sandra Bland. Driven by a potent cocktail of anger, grief, righteousness and love, Common sounds as alive and focused over its 15-tracks as he has done since 2005’s Kanye West collaboration ‘Be’.
His eleventh full-length release, it’s also his most collaborative effort since 2002’s brilliant but flawed ‘Electric Circus’. The guest list is impressive too, with Stevie Wonder, Bilal, John Legend and pianist Robert Glasper among those working alongside longtime Common associates James Poyser of The Roots and multi-instrumentalist Karriem Riggins. And with some assistance from Glasper, Riggins also doubles up as producer, doing a great job of tying together a diverse range of styles which includes jazz, soul, R&B, funk and gospel.
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Arguments put forward in ‘The New Jim Crow’ and ’13TH’ can be heard all across ‘Black America Again’, a prime example being the off-beat piano-led title track which sees Common rapping passionately about “the new plantation, mass incarceration“. Featuring a James Brown black pride monologue as its chorus and Stevie Wonder soulfully closing the track singing about “rewriting the black American story“, it’s among the finest moments of Common‘s 24-year career.
Mass incarceration is also in his cross-hairs on the moving ‘A Bigger Picture Called Free’ and the superb piano-led closer ‘Letter To The Free’, on which Common targets U.S. President-elect Donald Trump over a marching beat:“We staring in the face of hate again / The same hate they say will make America great again“. Another highlight is the off-kilter, Afro-Futuristic funk of ‘Pyramids’, its synth lead and Ol’ Dirty Bastard sampled chorus slotting in well alongside R&B-flavoured tracks like ‘Red Wine’ and ‘Unfamiliar’.
Other notable tracks include ‘Home’, a horn-led celebration of the Windy City, and ‘Little Chicago Boy’, a variation on ‘Pop’s Rap’ from past albums which celebrates the life of his late father. But while there plenty of positives, the album isn’t without its flaws. Lyrically ‘The Day Women Took Over’ comes across a bit patronising despite his heart being in the right place, and the John Legend duet ‘Rain’ is just too similar to ‘Glory’ from the Oscar-winning film ‘Selma’, also directed by Ava DuVernay.
Comparisons with ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’ are going to happen, especially given their similarities in both style and content. But despite ‘Black America Again’ not quite being on the same level as its predecessor, it’s still a very important and timely album, especially with the KKK-supported Donald Trump preparing to move into the White House.