Common Electric Circus MCA The sonic genius of Public Enemy"s 1988 It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back. The subtle innovations of A Tribe Called Quest"s Low End Theory and Midnight Marauders. The perfect world bliss of Digable Planets" slept-on 1994 masterpiece Blowout Comb. The gritty street realness of Nas" Illmatic (1994), Raekwon"s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx Ö (1995) and Mobb Deep"s The Infamous (1995).
All of these albums have the distinction of not only being records that sounded incredible on first listen but keep getting better. They also pushed the hip-hop genre further aesthetically, emotionally and sonically. These are records that opened up the possibilities and expanded the boundaries for what rap music could do, be and say. Common"s fifth album, Electric Circus, can be added to that relatively short list of groundbreaking albums. By slowing down the pace, going inward and falling in love (with music, his child, his woman and life), Common has delivered a hip-hop classic that many who claim to be hip-hop fans will wrongfully sleep on. This doesn"t change the fact that this is a classic album, whether it"s recognized by the rap masses or not. With guests ranging from Mary J. Blige to P.O.D., The Neptunes to Stereolab and Jill Scott and Erykah Badu, Electric Circus is an album worthy of something bigger than a 300 word critique. It deserves a track-by-track analysis. So does the knowledge. 1. "Ferris Wheel." It"s Electric Circus" intro, and while not at all bad, it does seem a little unnecessary. This is the only flaw on an otherwise near perfect album. 2. "Soul Power." This is one quotable lyric, among many scattered through the album: "I hustle at a speed between greed and need / on the streets where intuition is and weed are breathed." Over a theremin-based sound and a repetitive drum track, "Soul Power" finds Common boldly embracing hip-hop"s more futuristic and sonically detached nuances. This is Electric Circus" first shove towards pushing hip-hop"s envelope. 3. "Aquarius." Based around a rock guitar riff, "Aquarius" is Common channeling Roy Ayres and Lonnie Liston Smith through a prog-rock filter. With backing vocals courtesy of soul crooner Bilal, you can feel hip-hop"s rigid and limited ground parting beneath Common"s feet. "Aquarius" is the album"s best example of balance between the heart, mind, body and soul. It"s introspective and head-nodding at the same time. 4. "Electric Wire Hustler Flower." This is the one that I initially feared most (because of The P.O.D. involvement). My fear proved to be unwarranted. While not at all what we"d expect from Common, this song actually works. This could"ve been a disastrous rock/rap song that revisits the same terrain that"s been trudged over by Linkin Park and Limp Bizkit. Thank God it doesn"t. 5. "The Hustle." British neo-soul import Omar and guest MC Dart Chillz increase the intensity of an already tight joint. Common waxes and wanes over living from day to day in the big city. This song has a slight Slum Village feel due to the carnival-esque keyboard sounds. It"s just a day in the life of three black men. 6. "Come Close." This is the album"s first single. "Come Close" is a Neptunes produced track (that doesn"t at all sound like what you"d expect from The Neptunes!). It features Mary J. Blige subtly crooning the hook. Common does his ode to A Tribe Called Quest through rhyming in a cadence that will instantly recall "Bonita Applebum." Any time rappers opt to use R&B singers on the hook of a song the results are usually disastrous, but not here. Common gets the balance right. This is what heaven sounds like. 7. "New Wave." A collaboration between Common and Laetitia Sadier of Stereolab? The result is genre-expanding hip-hop that sounds neither forced nor contrived. The song shows hip-hop"s best case scenario and wishful possibilities. 8. "Star *69 (P.S. With Love)." This one is reminiscent of the best songs from Slum Village"s Fantastic, Vol. 2 album, except with Bilal mellowly sing-speaking the hook. This is an example of Common"s most used guise: the hopelessly romantic B-Boy who can seduce with his poetry without ever once sacrificing his street credibility. 9. "I Got a Right Ta." Over a more typically Neptunes-sounding track, Common does his best Sadat X impression. "I Got a Right Ta" also houses an off-beat sounding harmonica (perhaps a reference to fellow Bohemian funksters Outkast"s "Rosa Parks") over a beat designed for the jeeps. 10. "Between Me, You and Liberation." Common whispers his rhymes, further expanding hip-hop"s somewhat limited emotional palette of rhyming exclusively from a tone of anger or aggression. Due to the integrated vocal mix, Digable Planets will probably be the first crew to come to mind when listening to this song. Cee-Lo makes an appearance on this song and (for once) doesn"t overpower the track. Perfection. 11. "I Am Music." Common revisits the Roaring "20s on this ragtime-meets-hip-hop joint. Jill Scott beautifully sirens the hook. This is a song that could"ve, if done wrong, been a catastrophe but Common makes sense of it all. 12. "Jimi Was a Rock Star." This is the first of two epic tracks on Electric Circus. This is a duet with Erykah Badu, where the result could"ve been less than climactic but somehow this song is not as pretentious as the title might lead one to believe. Common does his best Gil Scott-Heron (singing instead of rapping). This is psychedelic funk with a bass line that wouldn"t sound wrong if compared with Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds" "Tupelo." Oh, and that"s Jimi Hendrix by the way. 13. "Heaven Somewhere." This is Electric Circus" magnum opus and the album"s closing, with Common opting to do a spoken word piece that morphs into a gospel choir sing-along that includes Omar, Cee-Lo, Bilal, Jill Scott, Mary J. Blige and Erykah Badu. As with all of Common"s other releases, his father, Lonnie "Pops" Lynn, closes the album with his own brand of matter-of-fact laments. This time "Pops" explains his heaven as being able to see his grandchildren. Sounds sappy and soft? Well, it"s not. It"s just another example of the places hip-hop could go if there were souls as brave as Common. This song is a perfect ending to a damn near perfect record.