Common & No I.D.'s 'Nobody's Smiling': An Album 20 Years in the Making

The Chicago rapper and Def Jam executive/producer reunite for a back-to-basics LP

"I'm trying not to do anything stereotypical," No I.D., the renowned producer-turned-Def Jam executive, tells a photographer at a shoot at the Skylark, a chic rooftop bar in New York. He puts his hand under his chin, like Auguste Rodin's The Thinker.

"Oh, man," says rapper Common, seated next to him on a plush couch. "That's one of my poses."

It's not the first time the pair has taken cues from each other. Twenty years ago, No I.D. produced the bulk of Common's 1994 LP, "Resurrection," the album that vaunted the rapper into hip-hop's pantheon. On July 22, their newest collaboration, Common's "Nobody's Smiling," hit stores via No I.D.'s Def Jam-distributed ARTium Records.

"I named my second album 'Resurrection' because it was like we were coming to life," says Common, 42. "This album now is like we're coming to life again."

With Manhattan's skyscrapers rising in the windows behind them, the pair are a long way from Chicago's rough South Side, where they met in the fourth grade and came up together, collaborating on Common's first three albums. "It was gangbanging, drugs, broken homes," recalls the rapper, born Lonnie Rashid Lynn Jr., before turning toward the camera and flashing a grin. Besides music, he has a decade of acting under his belt, starring in AMC's Hell on Wheels and films like Just Wright and American Gangster; for him, this is business as usual. But No I.D. (born Ernest Dion Wilson) is known for his behind-the-scenes work, crafting soulful beats and developing talent. He's not used to flashing lights.

That could soon change, however, because while Common is already a bona ­fide star, No I.D., 43, is having a moment of his own. In April, after three years as an A&R exec at Def Jam - where he inked R&B singer Jhene Aiko and executive-produced albums by Big Sean and Nas, among others - he was named executive vp/co-head of A&R of the historic label. It's a fitting title for a true music man, one who isn't inclined to chase trends for quick hits, and who's still remarkably hands on with production despite his cushy title.

"My wife says I'm like a little black dress - it never goes out of style," explains No I.D. "My career would go up and down, but I was learning how to be that dress - not the guy who had a two-year run and wore out his welcome."

Common's new record will be ARTium's first full-length release, but he and No I.D., who are now neighbors in Los Angeles, haven't always been on the same page. By the rapper's fourth album, 2000's "Like Water for Chocolate," Common had traded in his pal's dusty grooves for J Dilla and The Roots' coffee-shop funk. He spent the next decade working with a laundry list of rap super-producers, most notably No I.D.'s former protege Kanye West, who signed Common to his G.O.O.D. Music imprint in 2004. No I.D. spent the early aughts below the radar, then became a staff producer for Jermaine Dupri, landing credits with Jay Z. He parlayed that into a similar role for West, which led to him becoming president at G.O.O.D. Music, and, later, his Def Jam job.

No I.D. "reminds you why we're doing this," says Common. "His agenda is hip-hop - being true to what hip-hop is about."

That much became evident when the duo reunited for "The Dreamer/The Believer," Common's 2011 LP. The album was an impressive return to the boom-bap sound they had cut their teeth on, and proved that when Common wasn't busy filming movies and TV, he was still a formidable artist. He even went tit for tat with Drake, laying into him on the song "Sweet." (The two have since reconciled.) Still, the project was only a moderate commercial success, selling 154,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan, which No I.D. blames partly on himself.

"There's nothing that highlights him," he says. "It was like me showing off."

The pair began working on "Nobody's Smiling" with a renewed sense of purpose earlier this year. "The songs were inspired by hours of conversations at No I.D.'s house and studio. "We'd talk about anything from life to music to the Miami Heat," says Common. "I make my best work when I'm with someone who shares a similar vision."

The results are obvious: "Nobody's Smiling" is a great listen. "Diamonds" is built on a catchy Big Sean hook, and could earn Common his first real radio play in years. And with rising Chicago stars Lil Herb ("The Neighborhood") and Dreezy ("Hustle Harder") onboard, Common shows he hasn't forgotten his roots. He explores them even more on "Rewind That," which details his sometimes strained relationship with No I.D. And maybe that's the best thing about them reuniting yet again. Twenty years after "Resurrection," Common is back home.

No I.D. "knows where I come from," says Common. "He knows what we been through. It's good to have people around you that can make you remember. Because you don't always see...yourself."


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