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Music Review: Common's Electric Circus

Electric Circus
Artist: Common
Label: MCA
Grade: Strong 2

Hip-Hop artist Common makes the wide influences for his latest offering “Electric Circus” known at first sight. The album cover, with its toned cutouts of the many individuals who influenced the release, is a play on cover of the classic Beatles’ album, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”. The album itself was completely recorded in Jimi Hendrix’s famed Electric Ladyland studio. Joining a movement led by Mos Def and taken up by The Roots, Common is the midst of a ‘reverse crossover’ from pure Hip-Hop to a hybrid style anchored by rock, but steered by blues, funk and gospel.

In an interview with BET.com, Common said that “It feels good that I took the chance and the opportunity and got rid of some of the fears that I had and just [did] it the way I wanted. I got a chance to open the music up and go past just doing Hip-Hop.” While it’s clear that Common is pleased with the album, which may bring traditional rock fans to the fold, it remains to be seen if finicky hip-hop fans will appreciate something so radical and eclectic in its themes and tone.

The record appears to be from another time. With song titles like “Soul Power”, “Aquarius”, and “Jimi was a Rock Star”, Common reveals himself as a child and student of the 70’s. The lead single, “Come Close”, (which closely resembles Common’s hit “The Light” from his previous record “Like Water for Chocolate”) features Mary J. Blige on a Neptunes produced track, sending a clear signal that Common is taking aim at producing at least one song palatable for radio play. However, it’s done tastefully and doesn’t bruise our sensibilities; overblown club beats and ostentatious cameos are thankfully absent from the record.

The tasteful collection goes on to feature an amazing list of collaborators including ?uestlove from The Roots, Erykah Badu, Jay-Dee from Slum Village, Cee-Lo, The Neptunes, Jill Scott, James Poyser, Bilal, and the legendary Prince. It also reaches back further to draw direction from the aforementioned Hendrix and Beatles, along with Pink Floyd, Issac Hayes, and Curtis Mayfield. This leads the record to easily traverse from smooth (“Come Close”, “Star 69”, “Between Me, You and Liberation”) to electric and edgy (“Jimi was a Rockstar”, “Soul Power”, “I Got Da Right Ta”).

Common is known within the hip-hop community as a top-ten lyricist, and continues to prove that not only can he change his flow-as heard on “I am Music” in which he rhymes over a big band beat– but can also tackle heavy issues, including his own previous lack of maturity. On the song “Between Me, You, and Liberation” he speaks deeply about an aunt’s tortuous bout with illness, as well as issues a close friend had with sexual orientation – a great departure from the derogatory statements made toward gays on previous records and what is commonly ‘acceptable’ in hip-hop.

With access to some of the most creative producers in the industry, “Electric Circus” continues Common’s progression toward producing an entire musical experience rather than just a strong lyrical record– a trap that he sat in before signing with MCA, and one that many of the industry’s greatest rappers still have a leg caught in. Common has made a trade off, breaking into more simple rhymes over the last two releases while sinking deeper into the creativity of his producers. Like Jordan’s game changed from slashing and overshooting, Common has learned to trust his teammates. While he may not produce as many highlights, the team is winning more and the results sparkle.

In a business that has become about copying what is popular to make hits, often at the expense of the soul of an artist and the best interests of the community at large (not to mention listeners’ boredom), it’s a relief to hear a radical interpretation of hip-hop from Common. Like the greatest artists of my lifetime, including Madonna and Prince, Common continues to change and grow on a record which has the potential to make a landmark impact on popular music.

January 14, 2003
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