Music: Black America Again

In Black America Again, venerated Chicago MC Common provides a poetic and honest examination of blackness in America today through what are mostly compelling, soulful tracks. Common’s exceptional ability to observe and articulate issues in the black community and his role within it, along with the album’s beautiful, gospel-inspired production, makes Black America Again a triumph of the mind and spirit.

The album begins with the forceful “Joy and Peace,” in which an excerpted church sermon is followed by the rapper’s own interpretation of God’s glory and the comparative ignorance of man. Whereas other artists tend to drive listeners away when they attempt to invoke religion, Common avoids being preachy while fully expressing his ideology. He shares similar wisdom on the next track, “Home,” which warns against the earthly pitfalls besetting mankind on the road to either Heaven or Hell, in a powerful follow-up to the album’s strong opening.

The intensity diminishes in the middle of the album as a result of some mellow interludes and forgettable odes to love. But Common regains his energy by honing in on the album’s most crucial theme: race. In the title track, “Black America Again,” Common fills a jazzy backdrop with references to well-known black figures, such as Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, and Serena Williams, to highlight how inequality between blacks and whites has persisted to this day. Here Common also brings up the issue of mass incarceration, which he characterizes as being part of the so-called “new Jim Crow.” While prison, politics, and institutional bias are clearly troubling the Windy City rapper, he refuses to lose hope. In “A Bigger Picture Called Freedom,” for example, Common raps from the perspective of a man behind bars, spitting, “My life story is written in a prison sentence / Wonder if this cell got room for forgiveness,” only to resolve the verse with the line, “Still I love.”

While black gospel elements certainly infuse some of the album’s best songs, Black America Again draws inspiration from other genres as well. Common has made a career of lacing soul and R&B tracks with his unique brand of lyricism, and this album is no different. “The Day Women Took Over,” for instance, features a slow, laidback beat and melodious horns reminiscent of the Isley Brothers and Barry White. Other songs, like “Pyramids,” (interestingly similar to Frank Ocean’s song of the same title), incorporate the futuristic-sounding synthesizers he has also dabbled with on earlier albums like Universal Mind Control (UMC). The variety makes for an eclectic listening experience influenced by a wide swath of black music, which I would highly recommend. Black America Again may not take climb the pop charts, but it is a rich and vibrant album worth hearing.

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