Common has always had something of the faux-hemian about him. Once a plainspoken Chicago B-boy with an allegiance to hip-hop as it was, Common relocated to Brooklyn a few years back to see what hip-hop might become. Before long, he was rocking a bold granola-pimp wardrobe and canoodling with neosoul heroine Erykah Badu.
Yet this hippie-come-lately is the first rapper from his circle–a loose, soul-schooled crew that includes the Roots, Mos Def, and Talib Kweli–to make a truly outré artistic statement.Electric Circus, his fifth album, was primarily recorded at Electric Lady, the New York City studio Hendrix built, and the purple haze is in full effect–as is the Afro beat (“Aquarius”),the robot funk (“Star *69 [P.S. With Love]),” with none other than Prince on keys, the gothic folk-tronica (“New Wave,” featuring Stereolab’s Laetitia Sadier), and even the ’30s swing (the hot-jazz workout “I Am Music”).
Aside from the elegiac “Between Me, You and Liberation,” though, the storytelling here isn’t as sharp as on Common’s previous albums. On tracks like the woozy “Aquarius” and the eight-minute psych-dub fugue “Jimi Was a Rock Star,” Common is long on ballsy concept, short on cohesion. And when he gets uppity–carping “I know pain like Cobain / Or A.I. playing hurt the whole game”–he sounds merely defensive, not honestly enraged.
In this bizarro context, tapping the ubiquitous Neptunes for a couple of beats may be Common’s weirdest production choice. But it turns out to be a wise one. “Come Close” under-utilizes guest vocalist Mary J. Blige, but the producers throw infectious hand-clap percussion and melting-butter keys under Common’s breathe-and-stop flow. “I Got a Right Ta,” the other Neps tune, is the album’s highlight, a honky-tonk crunk jam with Common kicking braggadocio through gritted teeth like Muhammad Ali: “I’m the only cat in hip-hop / That can go to a thrift shop / Then neck it up to the ghetto / And get props.” A hipster, in other words, who keeps a dog-eared ‘hood pass in his back pocket. Common’s been cultivating that image for a while–finally, he’s got the music to match.