Chicago-born MC Common (a.k.a. Lonnie Lynn) has been a standard bearer for the Native Tongues' progressive style of hip-hop for years. During that time, he's been celebrated for his intelligent lyrics and his rejection of hip-hop's rampant misogyny, although his occasional incongruous bouts of homophobia have been disconcerting. His 2000 album, Like Water for Chocolate, was soulful and brilliant, and his new effort, Electric Circus, strives for an adventurousness rarely seen in mainstream hip-hop. You'd think that combination of talent and ambition would make for his best work. Well, you'd think so.
It seems that Common's got a newfound appreciation for classic rock and soul. With its Sgt. Pepper-ish cover art and Summer of Love song titles ("Aquarius," "Jimi Was a Rock Star," "Soul Power"), Circus is his attempt to incorporate that new infatuation into hip-hop. Unfortunately, Com has made the decision to embrace only the worst of the past, from psychedelia's aimlessness to metal's cocophony. The Prince rip-off "Star 69" with Ol' Dirty Mind himself on keys gives way to the Neptunes-produced "I Got a Right Ta," which sounds like every other Neptunes-produced song. The album devolves from odd to uncomfortable on "Jimi," which features Common's awkward crooning over fuzzed-out guitar. All that's missing is some brown acid and the cast of Hair.
Circus isn't a total disaster. The jazz-tinged "I Am Music," featuring a Betty Boop-style vocal from Jill Scott, is an old-school standout, and "New Wave," with its back-and-forth mood shifts and a dreamy hook from Stereolab's Laetitia Sadier, shows that Common's ambitions can pay off.
Common gets plenty of points for trying something new, although he often seems to lose his way. That's the problem with experimentation: Sometimes it blows up in your face.
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