Universal Mind Control, Common’s eighth album, is a Neptunes-produced, ’80s-electro-inspired jaunt that left me wondering what happened to Lonnie Lynn, the MC behind Be and Like Water for Chocolate. The street philosopher who so effortlessly showed us his slice of Chicago has left the building. In his place we have a nondescript voice from the future, nearly as indefinable as the bizarre headless torso that graces the album cover.
To be fair, Universal Mind Control was troubled from the first delay. Originally, it was to be called Invicible Summer and released in June 24. Common shelved it while he was acting on the set of the movie Terminator Salvation, then delayed it a second time and renamed it. Amid all of this flip-flopping, the title track dropped as the Announcement EP to little dance-floor fanfare. The track features Pharrell singing the melody with a Bambaataa-esque vocoder: "This is that new shit, and it don’t feel the same." So far so good, but Common’s attempts to catapult to something new fall short. His voice and cadence feel lost in the beat, leaving us guessing at this clumsy string of rhymes: “robotic," "supersonic," "technotronic," "bionic."
Common is usually a dexterous lyricist. But on this album, his wittiest lines are little more than playground puns: "check the dictionary, that ass is so defined," and "I stay fresh like I’m wrapped in plastic." And what happened to the socially conscious, intellectual MC? The only evidence that this is the same Common from before is on "Changes," a pseudo-tribute to fellow Chi-town hero Obama. But like the rest of the tracks, it’s outmoded: “We see change/ We see a black man running/ We need him to win."
Still, with the Neptunes at the mixing board, the damage isn’t too bad. "Sex 4 Suga" sounds like a N*E*R*D track with Common repeating the electro motif: "Electricity is definitely there/ I got shocked when I touched your hair." On other tracks, guest spots by Pharrell, Cee-Lo and Kanye do little to pull this album out of the muck. Kanye was executive producer of Universal Mind Control, and he aimed for the futuristic electro-hop executed so well on his own 808s and Heartbreak. But Common misses the mark. Perhaps it’s because his niche is Dilla-constructed upright bass slaps and bebop, not tribal drums, synths and lazers.
Common is not the first MC to succumb to an acting career (see Mos Def, Andre 3000). On Universal Mind Control, Hollywood’s nefarious influence is prevalent. Common clearly prioritized Terminator last summer, and his album’s maligned release results in a jagged, out-of-season mix. Noting the original title of the album, Common said, "I created this music for the summer time; it’s about feeling good." Well, we’re approaching the dead of winter and are in the middle of a recession, and Universal Mind Control isn’t helping.