A lot of art in recent years has been centered upon Black consciousness. It has helped artists portray what life is like for an African-American today, an important effort given the ever-salient issues like police brutality and mass incarceration. The theme has also helped artists celebrate the diverse culture that exists in the Black community.
While pro-Black art has seen an uptick in the mainstream, some artists have been providing such work for years, and a prime example is the supergroup known as August Greene. The group consists of Common, Robert Glasper, and Karriem Riggins—three highly-accomplished artists that have nurtured different mediums, but all capture the soulfulness that's birthed from being Black in America. Their debut as August Greene is an embodiment of the cultural pride they have shown in the past.
Glasper is a composer and pianist well-known for his work in Jazz and R&B, including his phenomenal pair of Black Radio albums. Riggins is a drummer and producer whose work has helped craft some of the best music by the likes of Erykah Badu, Earl Sweatshirt, J Dilla and The Roots. Together, they provide the audio canvas that Common paints with his words. Throughout his legendary career, Common has addressed the lives led by Black people. His words have always been poetic and purposeful, and this remains true on August Greene.
The album begins with "Meditation," a song with ominous production that doesn't feature much more than drum loops and piano chords. This backdrop creates a heavy mood that matches the weight of Common's thoughts. He questions his personal purpose, asking if he's "born to win or born to sin." Yet, Common quickly broadens his scope as he remembers the news of several young Black girls going missing in Washington D.C. last year. Common points out that these sorts of tragedies often become forgotten and unresolved as national attention shifts to "politics and propaganda." The report of 14 girls going missing in a single day was disputed by local police, but Common's point about short-term attention being paid to long-term problems for the Black community is strong nonetheless.
"Meditation" finds Common discussing events and trends that can easily breed pessimism, but he responds with a proactive mindset. His rhymes become a rallying cry as he reflects, "Distractions, distractin' us from action / It's time for some, time for some passion / There's a time for patience, a time for communication / A time for formation, a time when it's overflowing, a time when it's wastin'." There's a sense of urgency in his words and his voice, and it makes it clear that Common truly feels what he's saying.
The determination heard from Common on the album's opener carries over into "Black Kennedy." The song has a more upbeat sound than its predecessor thanks to Glasper's piano play. Common's sentiments match the song's mood as he fills his rhymes with Black pride. He reminisces about what he learned from his relatives and how he reciprocated their love. In the second verse, Common moves from speaking about familial legacy to the legacy he hopes to leave within his community. He rhymes, "Black Kennedy, royalty with black identity / Leader of the freestyle, I go to penitentiaries / And write with the fight of Reverend Wright from Trinity / For centuries, they'll remember me for my similes."
Common shows pride and hope on "Black Kennedy," feelings that reflect the political moment we are transitioning from. Opinions vary about the decisions he made, but it's clear that President Obama was thoughtful and dignified throughout his stint in office. As African-Americans continue to push for progress, many want Obama to be a sign that even more can be accomplished—rather than a sign that we have accomplished enough. Common echoes this when he raps, "The jurisdiction of justice, non-fiction of a hustler's heart / From dust we start. And we must embark / to passion mark the people / Had our first Black prez, I'ma be the sequel." I'm not sure if these lines are a campaign announcement (maybe he can run on the same ballot as Kanye for 2020), but they speak to how Obama's presidency removed the ceilings of what he thinks is possible.
August Greene features a lot of social commentary, but Common balances it with introspection. On "Let Go" and "Practice," he uses his faith as a compass to explore his inner demons. He says, "Run through my mind, trippin’ over time / It’s moving faster than me, haphazardly / So much drive that I crashed into me / Father, will time be my last enemy?" Common's words here and throughout the two songs are dense and a bit gloomy. To complement it, Riggins and Glasper provide subdued instrumentation, as well as vocals from Samora Pinderhughes that are eerie. The song's elements come together well, but not flawlessly. Certain moments on "Practice" lend themselves to "lyrical miracle" jokes and a few of Common's similes seem forced. Yet, any missteps Common takes in his technique pale in comparison to the ground he covers with his content.
Common's input takes center stage throughout most of the album. Yet, Glasper and Riggins still manage to showcase what makes them special talents. Their musicianship drives "Aya," a song that features very few vocals. The track has the jam session-feel that marks some of Glasper's solo work, and it provides solace amid a thought-provoking album. The play of Riggins and Glasper also shines on "Optimistic," a great remake of Sounds of Blackness’ '90s classic that fittingly features a legend from that era in Brandy. The uplifting spirit of the song helps to cap an album that finds Common concerned, but hopeful.
August Greene essentially picks up where Common left off on Black America Again. The 2016 album featured collaboration with Riggins and Glasper, as well as socially-driven lyrics. With this in mind, the music offered on August Greene is far from being foreign to Common's fan base. Yet, his voice and outlook remain as poignant as ever.
Notable Tracks: “Aya” | “Black Kennedy” | “Let Go” | “Optimistic”