Give credit where credit’s due: Not too many MCs would attempt to flow over the beats Common assembles for his latest opus, Electric Circus. Most of the album’s production was handled by James Poyser and ?estlove of the Roots, and like the Roots’ most recent outing, Phrenology, Circus is an attempt to expand hiphop’s sonic boundaries. But unlike Phrenology, which is built around a core of brutal percussion, Circus has no musical theme other than diversity. That the album includes a parade of guest artists ranging from Erykah Badu to Mary J. Blige to Laetitia Sadier of Stereolab is a good indication that Common approached Circus with one goal: that no two tracks sound alike.
It’s undeniably entertaining to hear the Chicago-born rapper’s producers and collaborators push themselves into the outer reaches of musical space. But because Circus is still a hiphop album, there must be something within the sonic storm that allows the listener to anchor himself—preferably an MC. But that MC is not Common, who seems dizzied by the array of beats hurled at him. Sure, each track sounds different on Circus, but Common almost always sounds like a rapper in over his head.
One of the defining characteristics of a great rapper is the ability to function as a track’s lead percussionist—to shape the rhythmic aspect of his voice to guide the listener through the intricacies of each beat. Common displays no such skill on Circus, preferring instead to employ a generic flow. On some cuts, he gets away with this passive strategy. “Aquarius,” with its distorted guitar riff, hypnotic drum beat, and wicked concluding solo, rightly relegates Common to the back burner while more interesting things are cooked up in front. And the Neptunes-produced “I Got a Right Ta” burns off a dirty, bluesy, keybs-driven jam while Common takes the ride without hindering things too much.
On Circus’ simpler tracks, Common actually shines. “The Hustle,” for example, takes a vivid, impressionistic look at life among the underclasses: “My eyes watch God from a place where times is hard/Hard times we embrace, everybody want a yard ’cause a yard mean space/Bein’ broke is odd/It leaves an odd taste in the mouth of the metro politic.” But the song, with its throbbing synth bass, unwavering beat, and EPMD-esque scratching, while funky, doesn’t present much in the way of difficulty.
It’s with less forgiving obstacles that Common runs into trouble. Take “Electric Wire Hustler Flower,” which blares with a spiraling hard-rock guitar riff. The cut isn’t rap-rock in the Run-DMC or Public Enemy mode, with a rock component merely stapled to thumping percussion—at its core, “Wire” is a rock song. As such, it provides an MC space for rhythmic creativity that’s fairly mind-boggling. Common’s answer to the challenge is not to listen to the track closely and come up with something original, but simply to raise his voice so that he can be heard above the din. The result is a song that doesn’t bring the strengths of its two genres together so much as it allows one genre to submit to another. Lyrically and rhythmically, “Wire” is only a few steps away from Limp Bizkit.
Its occasional rhythmic monotony aside, Circus’ lowest points are lyrical. Once upon a time, Common was rap’s most complex nativist. Whereas the average MC reps his hood by exhorting its murder rate, Common never turned his love of home into a turf war. On discs such as 1994’s Resurrection and 2000’s Like Water for Chocolate, Common presented black Chicago with realism rather than sensationalism. He never made whole songs to praise his town; he simply littered his lyrics with references and details, from stepping to Harold’s Chicken Shack.
Furthermore, Common once displayed an ability to deftly mix all of his influences—his hometown, black nationalism, Islam—without sounding as if he were attempting to convert the listener. His thoughts often came scattershot, preventing you from distilling any overarching point. In most cases, this style also prevented Common from becoming didactic. On Circus, however, Common too often gets too literal: “Jimi Was a Rock Star” apotheosizes Jimi Hendrix for nearly nine minutes; “Heaven Somewhere” includes the exhortation to “turn to Matthew 24.”
But Common is at his worst when he plays lady-killer. On “Come Close,” he finally stumbles upon a different flow (which happens to be the one A Tribe Called Quest used over a decade ago on “Bonita Applebum”), but he uses it to litter the cut with pickup lines such as “Your whole being is beautiful” and “I’m tired of the fast lane/I want you to have my last name.” “Star *69 (PS With Love)” is of the same ilk, and it features Common actually uttering, “Let’s let our bodies talk and our auras speak.”
By the end of the album, Common sounds like an artist more for his pretensions than for his artfulness. Despite its sonic inventiveness and frequently laudable ambitions (“Between Me, You & Liberation” is the first time I have ever heard homosexuality discussed maturely in hiphop), Electric Circus ultimately fails because of a lack of great MCing. Perhaps next time around Common will deliver lyrics worthy of the wide range of tracks his producers bring to bear. Until then, we’re left with little more than a spoken-word poet trying to rhyme over a beat. CP