A mostly levelheaded veteran who’s open about his distant relationship with Chicago, Common is the only 30-plus rapper who could’ve made a Nobody’s Smiling. And this goes beyond the conscious label or being a representative of “real hip-hop.” Common’s best works have been guided by a sense of empathy whether it’s through his famous personification of hip-hop or within J Dilla’s production utopia. At its best, Nobody’s Smiling is mindful of the fact that the conversation about the urban warzones of Chicago doesn’t simply rely on numbers and politics. There are voices that deserve more weight than a flattening label like 'Chi-raq' or 'the Midwest'. Common’s latest effort — perhaps his best since Be — errs away from self-importance and gives these perspectives that respect. It gives Lil Herb room to pull out that poignant verse on the album-opening “The Neighborhood” (“Can't nobody stop the violence, why my city keep lyin'?/ Niggas throw up peace signs but everybody keep dying”). It helps Vince Staples — who’s not even from Chicago — cleanly illustrate the distance between reality and morality on “Kingdom” (“Lit up with the abuse, they wasn’t for show, I promise every pistol was used").

Common caught fire once again when he reunited with No I.D. for The Dreamer/The Believer, but Nobody’s Smiling finds him cutting out the fat for conceptual focus. Even the album’s four braggadocio-leaning tracks — "Blak Majik" (the lowlight, but not by much), "Diamonds," "Speak My Piece," and "Real" — remains grounded by concrete surroundings. “Diamonds” is graced with breezy production and a serviceable Big Sean feature. Here, Common’s ambitions are still marked by reverence and mortality (R.I.P. Len Bias). The Notorious B.I.G-sampling “Speak My Piece” finds Common aware of his paternal responsibilities, but other than that it’s the lightest song on the album.

The four songs are merely supplemental, and “Speak My Piece” is the sweetener before the pill of the album’s title track. If the drill scene is the scapegoat for America’s sensationalism of violence, “Nobody’s Smiling” uses the genre’s trademarks and twists them into something disconcerting and provocative. No I.D. slows the hi-hats and carnival synths — drill elements — to a brooding crawl as Common unfolds brutal realities: “This ain’t a game nigga, ain’t no options.” Malik Yusef’s career highlight of an appearance transforms this track into something darkly satirical: “Is there a Scarface casting at the crib I don’t know about? So many shortys have tried out for the role.”

The frank honesty and introspection that permeates through the verses on Nobody’s Smiling show the issues faced aren’t societal; they’re personal. Common has his own battles to face. The album-closing “Rewind That” is an affective, deeply personal cut that has him reaffirming his decision to leave Chicago, recounting the disconnect between him and No I.D. during the Soulquarian era, and looking back at the heartbreak of J Dilla’s passing: “The beats got iller, but the sickness was still there/ I'm wishing I could will him out of his wheelchair.” At its core, it’s a man’s years-long journey for closure. It’s a reminder that at 42, Common doesn’t quite have the answers; he’s searching for them like everyone else. He also has to face conflicts like everyone else, and Nobody’s Smiling is a clear-eyed grapple with them. And it’s compelling, too.