Common and his longtime producer No I.D. made an agreement to use his new album, Nobody's Smiling, to address the violence that is plaguing their hometown of Chicago.
This week, the city anticipates confirmation that the Department of Justice would dispatch more Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms agents to help combat the gun violence that has made national headlines.
"I keep hearing about people dying and the violence that's going on. I feel like it's my responsibility, and our responsibility, to the city," Common tells Yahoo Music about his early talks with No I.D. and their mission for this project.
The album's first single ,"Kingdom," tells stories of individuals who sold drugs and plotted vendettas, and eventually pondered the spiritual judgment they would face.
Common wanted to illustrate how survival sometimes takes priority over morals. "I was thinking about how a person trying to survive is not always thinking from a spiritual perspective, even if they are a spiritual person and believe in God," he explains.
Though Common has ties with the city's underground rappers, some with gang affiliations, he doesn't take an intrusive approach to dialoguing with them. "The artists that I've interacted with that come from Chicago — Lil Bibby, Lil Herb, I've been on the phone with Lil Reese — I just have a conversation with them, I don't tell them what they should be doing," he reveals. "They got something to offer to me and maybe they could learn from me too. More than anything, I just try to be ears for them in case they want to talk to me about something. Anytime I get a chance to talk to them, I make sure they know they got an open door to talk to me about anything."
In an effort to show unity for the city, Common invited several of the artists to appear on the album's cover art. "It's about saying we all one, we come from the Chi, and we just giving them a platform to be seen. They represent what Nobody's Smiling is."
Having the clear direction and purpose for the album made it Common's most natural record to write. One thing missing from his 10th set is his father's regular "Pop's Rap" spoken-word track. Due to heath issues, Lonnie Lynn Sr. was unable to share his usual words of wisdom. "God willing, maybe I'll have him on another time," Common explains.
Common is also making a difference in Chicago with his Common Ground Foundation. This weekend the organization is taking a group of kids to a camp in Wisconsin where they receive mentoring as well as academic and creative character development. Common boats about the "bonding time" where the kids detach from their cell phones and drama of the city to do everything from "create plays to yoga to trust walks."
Common is honored to release Nobody's Smiling on Atrium/Def Jam Recordings, the legendary hip-hop label that launched the careers of rap stars LL Cool J, Public Enemy, Slick Rick, Foxy Brown, and others. Common actually almost signed with the label more than 20 years ago when he made his debut with 1992's critically acclaimed Can I Borrow a Dollar?, when he still used the stage name Common Sense.
"I was gonna sign on Def Jam," he recalls. "When I was getting my first deal, I was hoping to. Jam Master Jay was going to sign me, but he ended up going with Onyx. It's an honor to be there to be working with their staff. I'm just grateful to be on there with No I.D. and him being one of the executives on the label. It all fits. It feels right."
It's always cool when things come full circle.