Common has come a long way, musically and personally, since his debut more than 10 years ago. Anyone who’s heard "Heidi Ho" can tell you that. With each of his releases, Common has moved closer to being a modern-day funk guru rather than a hip-hop icon. And the aptly-named Electric Circus continues this journey towards the fringes of hip-hop’s boundaries, expanding them along the way. And the album sure feels like a circus, with each track a new attraction under the tent.
The Roots drummer and fellow Soulquarians member Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson did most of the production for Electric Circus, Comm’s fifth release. ?uestlove brings an eclectic feel to the record by incorporating all types of sounds. From the beginning, you can tell this is not going to be a run-of-the-mill effort (not that Common has ever been guilty of that).
Electric Circus ranges from the soulful to the psychedelic. "Jimi Was A Rock Star" is a tribute to Jimi Hendrix, with Common trying his hand at singing, alongside lover Erykah Badu, in an interesting and somewhat strange duet. In fact, much of the album was recorded at Hendrix’s Electric Lady Studios in New York and Jimi’s presence, and that of many of his rock/soul/funk contemporaries, is felt all the way through.
"Electric Wire Hustler Flower" experiments with harsh sounds and levels and has Common yelling over a high-pitched guitar: "Outer body experience hard to explain/ Like the pyramids and gods I remain/ I know pain like Kurt Kobain/ Or A-I playin’ hurt the whole game."
But the album falls short, basically due to two Neptunes-produced tracks. "Come Close," featuring Mary J. Blige, is a love song for Badu with heartfelt lyrics, but the same ol’ tired Neptunes drums are whack and boring. "I Got A Right Ta" isn’t bad either, if you can get past the annoying hook (anybody else sick of hearing Pharrell tryin’ to sing?).
In spite of these, Common shows he’s as comfortable rhyming over a Neptunes beat as he is with the ragtime-inspired "I Am Music" or "The Hustle," a P-funk-style head-bobber about, of course, the hustle: "The hustle is hollerin’/ Beautiful minds grind grind for the dollar and/ Whether dice scholarin’ or white collarin’/ We all talk hustle to profit like Solomon/ The young play corners/ Sean Jean modelin’/ They get it from they momma / Back music is fatherin’/ Flashlights like Parliament/ In court non-whites wishin’ they had Cochran."
As the album progresses, it delves further and further into new realms. Common delivers an ironic ballad to a phone-sex operator that’s humorous and sweet on "Star *69": "Some nights I wish you were here with me now/ My bad I just hit redial/ I want you to come and never leave now/ Is your mind and your right hand free now." This cut comes with the record’s most fitting choice for a guest spot, recruiting Prince, the ultimate freak, on the keys and guitar. Common, no stranger to sensitive topics, also thoughtfully addresses personal liberation, sexual abuse, cancer and homosexuality in "Between Me, You & Liberation."
The album may not be for everybody. Songs like "Heaven Somewhere," which includes many of the guest artists singing gospel, may turn you off. But Common brings together many different textures and goes off on several musical tangents but still manages to have DJ’s cutting over a few tracks — a refreshing touch. Still, Electric Circus is one of the most daring albums released in a while, and Common shows a lot of balls to put out such a diverse collection, regardless of how hip-hop fans might react to it. If you like conscious rap mixed with a fresh, original sound, you should dig this.