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Electric Circus

With Electric Circus, Chicago-bred, Brooklyn-based MC Common has attempted to make a Jimi Hendrix-style hip-hop record. Somewhere along the way, though, he forgot about his true talent: classic, thoughtful MC-ing.

It's not hard to remember that B-boy named Common Sense who dissed Ice Cube and wrote the quintessential love letter to hip-hop, "I Used to Love H.E.R." But nearly a decade after his classic album, Resurrection, Common looks more like Ben Harper than Kool G Rap. With his floppy knit hats and hemp jackets, Common sports the boho uniform like a badge of hippie honor. Unfortunately, his sound has changed just as dramatically as his look.

Electric Circus was mostly recorded at New York City's Electric Lady Studios, where Hendrix recorded the masterpiece Electric Ladyland in 1968. Common tries to emulate his newfound hero on nearly every track on the album. Just the title of the bombastic "Jimi Was a Rock Star" is a dead giveaway. One problem: Common is an MC, not a musician. Which makes it difficult for him to achieve his lofty goals. Mostly he fails.

Despie energetic and otherworldly production courtesy of ?uestlove and James Poyser on many of the songs, the album lacks any musical cohesion. Common tries so hard to freak out his hip-hop fan base, and he's probably succeeded. His rhyming is tight as ever, but it seems like he's running out of things to say. Nearly every song is so crammed full of clatter, he mistakes muddled with multi-layered.

"Electric Wire Hustler Flower" features what sounds at first like Trent Reznor. We're not that lucky. Turns out it's only Sunny of P.O.D. supplying much of the chorus, which he shouts. Moaning wind sounds back the track, along with a pipe organ. Com, in a moment of clarity, hollers "I used to write shit to please niggas. Now I write shit to freeze niggas." This couplet symbolizes his evolution since his debut, Can I Borrow a Dollar?, but then he gets too caught up in ruminations on what it means to be "real."

Doom-and-gloom organ riffs and pretentious rhymes about love and soul rule "New Wave." In an aggressive tone, Common spits, "Children by the window with the gun cocked/ They could get robbed and stop the luck/ Monkeys dance around for MTV spots."

Ironic considering that Common was last seen on MTV in a Coke commercial singing about "The Real Thing" with Mya. He can also be seen there in his candy-colored (i.e. crap) video for "Come Close" featuring Mary J. Blige. Hardy, healthy handclap snares accompany the lamest Neptunes melody of all time. Common doesn't help by eliminating intelligent wordplay, proper flow and any sense of originality on this cryfest. Blige supplies soothing vocals, but is clearly there solely as the bait for this blatant shot at radio play.

On "Star '69" down-low keyboards courtesy of Prince (yeah, that Prince) and brushes banging on the skins make this a love song for mellow drum-circle fiends. It's eminently skippable. And neo-soul crooner Bilal is wasted here.

It's not all bad at the "Electric Circus" though. The Neptunes redeem themselves on "I Got a Right ta." Common has never been this playful with his flow. What sounds like a lively Sonny Terry harmonica sample (but which was actually played by musician Lee Kelly) juxtaposes the futuristic slam of the beats to the down-home sounds that Common appears to be searching for.

The runaway train rhythm of "Soul Power" make Common's spit-induced, intellectual boy's growl a true head-nodder. Ragtime-influenced horns and Jill Scott's Cotton Club-channeling chorus highlight "I Am Music," and its speedy beat complements Common's upbeat cadence.

The hymn-like "Aquarius," with its Jeff Beck-style miniature guitar solo and earthy percussion, is another example of Common's strained attempt at expanding horizons. Insistent verses mixed with its ethereal choruses segue into the cosmic boom bap of "The Hustle." This joint sounds like Roger Troutman climbing ladders made out of synthesizers. Ugly.

On "Between Me, You and Liberation" we get the softest voice yet from Com. Murky, sensual musings on love and sexual connection open the song, but he soon moves to questions of death and homosexuality. A notorious proponent of the term "faggot" in his rhymes, Com shows some maturity in dealing here with a loved one's sexuality. This is about as much storytelling as we get from the typically Homeric Common, though. Too bad.

Common's wordy-gurdy stunts have excused questionable production on previous albums, but on Electric Circuswe don't even get that much truth. Just empty meditations on life. It's a shame. If only the B-boy we used to know would just beat the hell out of the hippie he's become.

by Sean Fennessey

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