Album: Electric Circus
Rating: 5.5 / 10
Reviewer: DJ MF
I have a love / hate relationship with Common. On one hand, he is undeniably one of the best MC’s in the history of hip hop. There are few that would really question this statement. He’s got an amazing back catalogue, topped by the spectacular “Resurrection”, and a well-deserved reputation as a lyricist few could match in the heyday of rap, never mind the watered-down lyricism of today.
But the Common I love has undergone some massive changes the last few years. First off, he ditched his long-time partner in music, No I.D., who I always though provided the perfect musical backdrop for Comm. Second, he moved to the dark side… well, ok, the Okayplayer / Soulquarians side of production.
The new marriage in my eyes produced one of the most underwhelming albums of the last 5 years, “Like Water For Chocolate”, which paired a ‘mature’ Common with sleep-inducing beats, save for a handful of tracks.
“Electric Circus” can be considered not a step forward, and not a step back for Common… but rather a curious step to the side. Sonically dense at times, with subtle nuances that will take repeated listenings to really appreciate, but at the same time incredibly boring and wacked out at points, this is the ultimate schizophrenic album.
Things start out well enough. The minimalist drums of Jay Dee (a surprisingly dope cut) on ‘Soul Power’ are a perfect lead-off to the LP, and when paired with some powerful lyrics from Com, and a wonderful chorus, make it the top track of the LP. ‘Aquarius’ follows, and it too bodes well for the ‘new’ Common… sparkly keys, a driving guitar sample, and muted drums, once again backing some inspired vocals, and unfortunately a sappy sounding chorus…which is unfortunately a hint as to what the rest of the album entails.
Things go WAY downhill from ‘Aquarius’. Whether it’s the pseudo-Outkast sound of ‘Electric Wire’, the sleep-inducing New Agey ‘Come Close’, ‘Star 69’ with it’s interesting bassline, but sappy lyrics, or culminating with ‘I Got A Right Ta’, produced by the Neptunes where Common shockingly makes Nore sound like the 2nd coming of Rakim, there are a number of mis-steps on “Electric Circus”.
It’s not ALL bad however. In between the mud lie some impressive tracks featuring some of the trademark lyricism from Com that heads have come to know and love, with ‘Between Me, You, And Liberation’, ‘New Wave’ and ‘The Hustle’ also standing out for their beats, with the latter 2 thumping instrumentals shining in particular.
Another beef I have with the LP is that apart from a couple of tracks, EVERY track on “Electric Circus” has a guest of some sort, usually of the R&B persuasion. Common has never needed this- he’s far better when on his own. In moderation it would be feasible I suppose, but in the massive chunk present here, it’s just unseemly.
What’s also interesting to me at least is that much of the purported ‘experimentation’ on this LP seems more like an exercise in musical restraint : which really isn’t experimentation. Simple beat arrangements, simple drum breaks, and judicious use of samples abound, with the MC and whatever guests he has on the track allowed to do their thing.
At the very least, it would appear that the lyricist side of Common has not disappeared along with his taste in most of his beats. He’s still on point as ever, ‘I Got A Right Ta’ notwithstanding, whether it’s addressing the needs of black people, social injustice, pure battling, or yes, even sappy love raps.
In the end, what Com has made with “Electric Circus” is an album that any 35 to 40 year old fan of hip hop should love. Don’t get me wrong – that’s not a diss, and it’s not a bad thing, but I get the feeling that older heads will appreciate this LP a lot more for it’s subdued sounds and ‘experimentation’ than younger heads will. A weird album with more valleys than peaks. If the succubus known as Erykah Badu departs, perhaps we’ll get a more focused Common Sense.