Common (formerly Common Sense) is nothing like a common emcee. Every single album Common has released has been very different from the previous. Sure, his first two albums were straight hip-hop. "Resurrection" spawned the classic title track and the classic "I Used To Love H.E.R.". His third LP ("One Day It'll All Make Sense) had many sung hooks but they were all driven by soul and not the typical R&B. (And this was years before Jay-Z's "Blueprint".) His classic LP "Like Water For Chocolate" was not only original but it was extremely innovative. Using The Soulquarians (a group of super-producers consisting of Jay Dee, James Poyser, ?uestlove and others), "Like Water For Chocolate" sounded like no other hip-hop album ever made. It had a thick thump that pounded away with a deep soul, a love of African American culture, a deep feeling of family, a struggle for freedom and human rights and a couple of very well-done story-telling tracks. From start to finish, the album was a classic with songs like "The Light", the amazing "Time Travelin'", the DJ Premier producer "The 6th Sense" and the revolutionary tale of "A Song For Assata". Now, Common returned with "Electric Circus". Here, Common changes again. With a thick vibe of the 60's/70's, "Electric Circus" has styles, which range from Marvin Gaye, Issac Hayes, Stevie Wonder, Parliament, Funkadellic, Miles Davis and Prince to Pink Floyd, Jimi Hendrix and even Traffic. There is a strong psychedelic guitar vibe along with a love of music, a love of family, a love of romance, and a love of peace. Lyrically, this is Common's most peaceful offering. As an LP, "Electric Circus" is once again innovative and original while borrowing styles and vibes from the 60's and 70's. Common has made another mind-expanding classic LP.
"Electric Circus" opens up with a ride on the "Ferris Wheel" featuring Vinia Mojica. Like "Time Travelin'" from "Like Water For Chocolate", this has a Spanish vibe to it. It's more like an intro but Common is not on it. "Soul Power" (produced by Jay Dee) is the first real song. The beat pounds away with a driving and quick-head-nod rhythm. The tempo is extremely unique for a hip-hop song. The sample (from a speech) is used for the hook displays Common's love of Black culture and his fight for freedom. It's a very unique and powerful track. Some say there's even diss towards Ja Rule. "New Wave" (featuring Laetitia Sadier Of Stereolab) is a wonderful and very original work. Stereolab, (A French-accented pop group that mixes electronic and acoustic textures into something melancholy and lovely) has always been a favorite of this reviewer and the whole Okayplayer crew (especially Jay Dee) have loved them too. (R.I.P. Mary Hansen). Here, James Poyser, ?uestlove, and Jay Dee produced an incredible, pounding beat that is very similar to a Stereolab song. Common rocks his verses with an intense energy but the true beauty of this track is the lush and ethereal voice of the hook sung by Laetitia Sadier. Her thick French accent gives it a beautiful quality and she adds her usual deep sentiments like "This life is precious.". This is the first Stereolab / hip-hop collaboration and I hope it's not the last. The Neptunes produced 2 tracks that actually work extremely well. While they do have a somewhat commercial appeal, they still possess that soulful and honest energy that Common is known for. "Come Close" featuring Mary J. Blidge is a beautiful love song. Common just talks his verses but the sentiments are so poignant and precious that the song becomes a classic. "…It's destiny that we connected girl / You and I can affect the world / I'm tired of the fast lane / I want you to have my last name…" His girlfriend, Erykah Badu should be proud. The next Neptunes-produced track is "I Got A Right Ta" (featuring Pharrell Williams) which has a more hard guitar-driven feel. While Common says that he is high off of music, the metaphor for drug use and musical euphoria works well. The pimped-out hook by Pharrell Williams also works well: "…Riding my car / Smoke my sh*t / Keep my head high and let the chrome spin / I got a right to feel high!…" It is a dope track. Lyrically and delivery-wise, Common shows a unique energy with a clever wit: "…I'm the only cat in hip hop that can go into a thrift shop /Connect, get up to the ghetto and get props /.../ Hip Hop is changin, / y'all want me to stay the same? / Sorta like Barkley on how I see the game / I recognize game like a scout /Ayo, I'm bound to wreck your lady as I turn your lady out..." Another pimped-out track that is well done is "The Hustle" featuring Omar and Dart Chillz. Produced by Kariem Riggins (who did work on Slum Village's "Trinity" LP), the smooth beat glides along as Common creates an anthem to get ahead in life. The unknown emcees also do a decent job and show a robust hunger. "I Am Music" featuring Jill Scott is a beautiful, fun and jazzy track filled with lush be-bop horns. Hip Chicago jazz glides through this track as both Jill Scott and Common do an amazing job.
Many tracks have that strong, soulful, mellow feel similar to the songs on "Like Water For Chocolate". The song "Star 69 (PS With Love)" features Bilal on the hook and Prince on guitar and keyboard. Produced by ?uest, Poyser, and Jay Dee, this is a smooth track about the erotica of phone sex. Common pulls it off too. It's just sexy enough that it is executed in a way that is not tacky at all. "Between Me, You, & Liberation" features Cee-Lo on the hook for a song of poignant tales about 3 forms of relationships where liberation plays an important role. Here, Common has verses about the liberation of death from sickness and also the liberation through sexuality as he accepts his homosexual friend. Common would have never had released a song with these sentiments 5 years ago. His maturity and open-mind is very evident. Erykah Badu and Common have a duet on "Jimi Was A Rock Star" where both of them sing! Sure, Badu is a wonderful singer but Common's voice works since it is very drowned out under Badu's soulful singing. This psychedelic track becomes a wild, tripped out tribute to the massive influence of Jimi Hendrix. It also becomes a metaphor for the contributions of American-American culture to music and the liberation of the mind. Although it is not catchy and takes some getting used to, "Jimi Was A Rock Star" is a song that should be appreciated. The final track "Heaven Somewhere" has an all-star guest list of everyone who has been on the album already. This track features Omar, Cee-Lo, Jill Scott, Bilal, Mary J. Blidge, Erykah Badu and Pops Lynn (Common's dad). Without structure or any kind of hook, Everyone (including Common) contributes something to the song, one after the other. The Lynn's (Common and his father) start and finish the song with spoken-word poetry as the others each sing about the mystery and beauty of God and heaven. It's a unique and daring track that reaches past the 10-minute mark. Still, it's a beautiful way to end the album.
The album is not 100% perfect. There are some minor problems to "Electric Circus". The horrible lead singer to the atrocious rap/rock group P.O.D. shouts the hook to "Electric Wire Hustle Flower". Thank God, he doesn't rap a verse. The loud guitar gives the track a rock/rap feel but Common's verses and Jay Dee's and Posyer's production saves it. The hook is psychedelic and hard but somewhat nonsensical. "Aquarius" is a much more mellow track featuring Bilal (even though it sounds like Erykah Badu). This track has that 60's Beatles / psychedelic vibe. He does have some cool lyrics ("…Guard your grill like George Foreman …") The only problem with the song is that it is a little too long and does not hit on an emotional level. A whole (somewhat boring) minute goes before any vocals start.
Overall, "Electric Circus" is a wild ride through psychedelic African hip-hop soul. It can be a landmark album and will grow on the listener through time. It is evident that Common is a passionate and mature emcee who is changing dramatically. Like Andre from Outkast and Cee-Lo from Goodie Mob, Common has become extremely eccentric. While some may wish that Common stayed with producers like No I.D., Common's metamorphosis with his fellow Okayplayers / Soulquarians is extremely exciting. The punch lines and clever wit is still there but it is not as blatant. The soul and fight for freedom takes over. Before it was evident that Common was influenced by jazz and soul, but now, his psychedelic rock influences are taking over. The participation of the French Chanteuse Laetitia Sadier displays Common's expanded musical direction and his exciting way of pushing the envelope. Like a circus, this album is a wild ride that is scary at times, and precious in others. It makes you think, it makes you feel. The "electric" side of it is the psychedelic overtones that wash over the listener. This is music to stimulate the electric pulses in your mind and body. Like any evening at a circus, it becomes a nostalgic time that becomes a classic memory. "Like Water For Chocolate" is a classic album and this album has the potential to be another modern hip-hop classic. Get yourself a ticket because this "Electric Circus" will entertain your mind, body, and soul.