“I Used to Love H.E.R.,” released on the 1994 album Resurrection, is Common’s eulogy for pure, underground hip-hop. “Told her if she got an image and a gimmick / that she could make money, and she did it like a dummy,” he sang. “Now I see her in commercials, she’s universal.” Thanks to the album’s success, Common (who was then known as Common Sense) was considered an heir (along with the Roots and Mos Def) to De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest’s throne. Last year, the Roots were featured in an ad for Coca-Cola. This past week, Common followed suit; the ad is about keeping it real.
Reconciling the “H.E.R” artist and the rapper now selling soda pop isn’t too difficult: Common’s new album, Electric Circus, is stunning. Lyrically, his rhymes are just as conscious as any he’s ever written. Unexpectedly, though, he doesn’t rap about the sociopolitical state of our nation, poverty, 9/11, or even everyone’s favorite Yale alumnus, George W. He does rap about losing and finding love — with singer Erykah Badu, who is one of the many guests on the album — and spiritual growth.
What makes Electric Circus so special, though, is its sound. Each song is different from the next, though they all share precise production and richly textured sounds. The album’s first single, “Come Close” (featuring Mary J. Blige) is R&B at its very best. The following song, “New Wave” — featuring Laetitia Sadier of the indie-rock Stereolab — is the best song on the album, and one of the most creative hip-hop singles of the past year. Like most of the album, the track is produced by the Roots’ drummer, Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson, who combines Stereolabs’ psychedelia with Common’s hip-hop sensibilities. Both the Neptune-produced songs, “I Got A Right Ta” and “I Am Music,” are very much inspired by the South, managing to capture the essence of country music (unlike the rap of Ludacris or Bubba Sparxxx). The album’s last track, “Heaven Somewhere,” is an epic in the vein of Talib Kweli’s classic cover of Nina Simone’s “Four Women,” featuring seven guest appearances.
The album does have some rough spots. A handful of the tracks might be called generic or, at worst, forgettable. But the only real misstep is the overly rock and roll “Electric Wire Hustler Flower,” which features mindless guitar playing from P.O.D.
Despite the occasional mediocrity, this is a unique album. The fact that Common uses the same producer as Britney Spears (and followed suit with a soda ad campaign) certainly doesn’t justify its dismissal. After all, the first successful hip-hop record, “Rapper’s Delight,” was a novelty song made by Sylvia Robinson (the president of Sugarhill Records) in order to capitalize on what she saw as a fresh new sound. Even Grandmaster Flash’s first single, “The Message,” considered the first rap song with a strong statement about African-American life, was more pop than anything else.
Like Run-DMC, Common has made a career out of a fresh synthesis of hip-hop and rap. “Electric Circus” isn’t perfect, but it’s a bold attempt at honest hip-hop that’s musically very rich and, more importantly, innovative.