The Renaissance of Common’s ‘Black America Again’

There’s no denying that there’s been a season of homegrown and worldwide campaigns from musicians, political activists and organisations using their voices to echo the thoughts and feelings of their communities towards injustices and the rising decline of a failing judicial system in America.

‘Black America Again’ released several days before Americans go to the voting booths in one of the most divided elections in history – is Academy Award winner, actor, political activist and rapper Common’s 11th studio album. A momentous and striking return to form running at just under an hour long, the intricately woven 15 track album offers melodic symphonies expressing haunting glimpses into the modern day experiences of African Americans today and throughout history.

Recent albums from Solangé’s ‘A Seat A The Table’ to Kendrick’s ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’ have characterised a realm of powerful storytelling at a level of excellence that’s allowed more black musicians to be free of commercial constraints and exist organically outside of the box. Common has always been vocal and active in the pursuit of creating and empowering the lives of those in his communities in Chicago and beyond, so it’s not surprising that ‘Black America Again’ pushes his statement of intent another step forward. Encapsulated by rhythm and blues, unimaginable synths and strings, piano’s that embody the core of the albums contents – it is made to provoke and tug you back and forth.

Some may argue that it’s message is reminiscent of Stevie Wonders ‘Innervisions’ or Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Going On’ – and they wouldn’t be wrong. As Common explains, “[Black America Again] could have been written in the ‘60s, it could have been written in the 1800s and still apply and now it’s 2016. It could have been written in the ’90s so the fact right there is why I called it “Black America Again.”

Orchestrated to amplify the current social and racial tensions that plague America, Common presents bars bathed in solid sequences like bouts in the ring, drawing on the essence of Mohammed Ali’s ‘float like a butterfly, sting like a bee’. The album floats impeccably through drum patterns and jazz riffs resembling electric vocal samples that tug rearward at varied speeds. Interspersed with interludes, the album solidifies Commons real focus and connects the dots perfectly for his listeners.

On ‘Home’, Common raps from a God perspective, retrospectively positing faith against fame “You’ll appear in circles in Hollywood / I birthed you in Chicago, you know how to police good / You’ll get Oscars, Emmys, and Grammys / Give those to your family / Don’t get caught up in the vanity / Or the world’s insanity.”

Exhibiting the Common we most commonly personify as the modern renaissance man, his expression of love and black elegance shines with the sensuous ‘Red Wine’ in collaboration with Syd of the Internet and Elena, the Marsha Ambrosius assisted ‘Love Star’, and the feminist ‘The Day Women Took Over’. Enlisting his longtime producer No.I.D, the chemistry is undeniable, yet the greatest highlights come off in collaboration with the brilliant Detroit-based drummer; Karriem Riggins. Sonically and emotionally driven perplexed arrangements, challenge Common’s flow into straight lyrical fire power – exemplified at it’s peak on ‘Pyramids’. The cut is cemented in anger layered in unbalanced drum breaks leaving Common to cut through sharp and beastly as if he were on a diss track. Ol’Dirty Bastard sampled vocals enhance it to full effect.

Leading tracks like ‘Little Chicago Boy’ make a personal reference to Common’s own experience as he raps candidly about the life of his father, the late NBA player Lonnie Lynn, who passed away after a battle with cancer in 2014 of cancer. ‘Letter to the Free,’ featured in Ava DuVernay’s acclaimed documentary ‘13th’ assists as a closing argument solid in Negro spirituals and preacher like delivery. This I believe is purposeful in Common’s quest to promptly recap the most important message of the album contents. Asking questions that still need answering. What is freedom? Do we have it? And! What does it look like in America? Common also shoots a few words aimed at Donald Trump using his own slogan  “You shot me with your ray gun / and now you want to trump me… We staring in the face of hate again / The same hate they say will make America great again”.

Name checking victims of police brutality – Sandra Bland and Trayvon Martin; Common vividly recounts horrendous crimes committed against African Americans by those who are supposed to protect and serve – “Trayvon’ll never get to be an older man / Black children, they childhood stole from them / Robbed of our names and our language, stole again / Who stole the soul from black folk?”

To co-incide with the album, Common premiered what he describes as “a medication on Black America Again” with the release of a short film executive produced by Ava DuVernay and leading cinematographer Bradford Young—Selma. The 21-minute monochromatic visual looks through the lens taking a tour of Chi-town, as Common’s words are interspersed sparingly with stripped back verses in a poetic format channeling his inspirations The Last Poets. Appearing later in the film, Common stands in the middle of an abandoned road with his drummer presenting the authentic essence of African storytelling.

Stevie Wonder’s euphonious voice sets the tone on the titled track ‘Black America Again’ – “You know, you know we from a family of fighters/Fought in your wars and our wars/You put a n***a in Star Wars/Maybe you need two/And then maybe then we’ll believe you.” Common’s powerful portraits are on display both visually and lyrically on ‘Black America Again’, dancing in jazz pervaded beats and moving soul samples, while taking you on a rollercoaster of emotions from tragedy to empowerment.

Listen to the album, not only to take in Common’s straight shooting bars-emotive-thought-provoking-poetic embellishment throughout ‘Black America Again’, but as a necessary psalm for the current state we are living in. Common deliverance is an intelligent portrayal of injustice, black spirit, poetry, black culture and hope, leaning towards a motivational collection of testimonials with hints of 90’s fundamental aesthetics.