Common noted that this album's title references Eric B. & Rakim's "In the Ghetto" -- more specifically, the song's recurring sample from the duo's "I Ain't No Joke." More symbolic, if beneath the surface, is the use of Curtis Mayfield's grim and pointed "The Other Side of Town" on album opener "The Neighborhood." While Nobody's Smiling was inspired by the tragic condition of Common's hometown of Chicago, its incorporation of a relevant-as-ever song from 1970, recorded by a Chicagoan in Chicago, is an acknowledgment of how inner-city struggles are a constant, not a trend. The rapper/actor's geographic and economic distance can be cited as a reason to approach Nobody's Smiling with a cocked brow. Common, to the contrary, once again works closely with fellow Chicago native No I.D., and he also makes room for a clutch of local artists -- including Dreezy, Lil Herb, and Malik Yusef -- who are also shown throughout the booklet, along with other Chicago figures, cast in the same slight light as him. Likewise, through character sketches and an otherwise grounded perspective, Common places himself on their level instead of acting as a sage. Fervent throughout, Common deals out some of his hardest and heaviest rhymes. No I.D. strengthens his partner's work with rigid, reverb-heavy productions -- from the mechanical pings of "Speak My Piece" to the juddering drums and probing keyboards within the title track -- without approaching the harshness of the Yeezus tracks to which he contributed. On "Kingdom," something like a weathered "Jesus Walks," the rapper and the producer are at their most moving, with the protagonist attending a funeral and plotting revenge, unable to connect with the concept of faith: "My whole life I had to worry about eatin'/I ain't have time to think about what I believe in." Common places the most directly biographical track, "Rewind That," at the end of the album's standard edition. The second half, where he traces his friendship with J Dilla, involves some brilliant storytelling, and perhaps the only moments during the album's sessions when Common cracked a smile while recording. It's a touching finish to the rapper's best album since Be.
AllMusic Review by Andy Kellman