Common: Electric Circus
There is a corniness about Common that shines special for you and me. It's not the pretentiousness of a rap bohemian dressed by Erykah Badu, accompanied by Stereolab, and produced by half of the known soul-clap universe--though there's that. It's the dumb, deep sweetness of a guy who tells you, "You have liberated me" with a straight face, and lets Cee-Lo sing the words. Buried in an album as bold and ridiculous as love, "Between Me, You and Liberation" is the story of a paramour who opens up about being raped as a child, an aunt who refuses more chemo, and a friend who comes out as gay. That Common has used promiscuous women, old ladies, and "fags" as punch lines or punching bags in the past only makes the song's triumph more moving. Against a mellow stop-start beat by the Roots' ?uestlove, the MC does what he does best (and doesn't do often enough): He seizes a narrative out of an idea, cherrypicking perfect details of thought, memory, and talk. "A story, she assembled it," he raps about the lover's revelation. "Tellin' it, trying not to remember it."
Elsewhere, though, Common's corn is so soft that when he writes and performs a phone-sex song with Prince, he takes the opportunity to rhyme "get the toiletries" with "our auras speak." Maybe he's been defensive too long (at least since admitting his middle-class-ness on 1994's Resurrection), but many take his wide-eyed positivity for fraudulence. When he recently covered Eugene McDaniels's antiwar classic "Compared to What" with Mya in those damn Coke commercials--rapping, unbelievably, that "'real' can't be bought or sold"--I was ready to dismiss the eclectic ringmastering of Electric Circus as pandering. But after 10 more listens, I truly believe that Common is a true believer. His rock-hip-hop mash-ups may be forced--P.O.D.'s screamed refrain for "Electric Wire Hustler Flower" is no more memorable than the half-dozen Badu/Mary J. Blige/Jill Scott/Bilal choruses that make up this opus's listless half. But on "New Wave," the MC puts Stereolab's Laetitia Sadier on a synth experiment gone right, and Badu arranges backup vocals elsewhere in the style of the late 'Lab singer Mary Hansen. Common's shit ain't genius, but at least you know he's smoking his own.
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