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Common: Electric Circus

Common at a glance...

Chicago, Ill.

First Recordings: 1992

Common: songwriting, rapping, singing.
Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson: drums, production.
Jay Dee (a.k.a. Jay Dilla): guitar, keyboards, beats, production.
James Poyser: keyboards, production.
Jeff Lee Johnson: guitar.
Erykah Badu: turntables, production, vocals.
Dart Chillz: rapping.
Cee-Lo: vocals.
Pino Palladino: bass.
Omar: vocals.
Jill Scott: vocals.
Bilal: vocals.
Mary J. Blige: vocals.
The Neptunes: production, vocals.
Laetitia Sadier: vocals.

In the Family :
The Roots, Stereolab, Slum Village, N.E.R.D., Cee-Lo, Mary J. Blige, Bilal, Jill Scott, Erykah Badu

Born Lonnie Lynn in the tough-ass Stony Island section of Chicago's South Side, Common Sense sprang up in the early '90s with Can I Borrow A Dollar?, an underachieving melange of styles and producers that somehow managed to show everyone that he had uncommon lyrical abilities. After a short period of foundering, his second album, Resurrection, became one of the great underground rap records of the '90s, an intense but swinging affair of wildly imaginative rapping shot through with introspection. The most-known meta-rap track from that album, "I Used to Love H.E.R.," called gangsta rappers out their name and ignited a feud with Ice Cube that only ended with a mediation session hosted by Louis Farrakhan. After some lame California group claimed their right to his original nom du mic, Mr. Lynn relocated to New York and reappeared as Common for 1997's One Day It'll All Make Sense, a huge-scope album that featured contributions by Lauryn Hill, The Roots, and Erykah Badu. After guesting on most of the good hip-hop albums of the late '90s, Common busted out with Like Water for Chocolate in 2002. Electric Circus was even more wildly ambitious, and simultaneously more personal. Between the two albums, Common got together with soul mate (and Soul Mate) Erykah Badu. They also got together musically on the monster hit "Love of My Life (An Ode To Hip-Hop)."


Electric Circus
MCA, Released 2002
This is my favorite record of 2002, which is high praise considering that this year was filled with albums that touched me deeply. But Blackalicious' Blazing Arrow was the only thing that came close, and both albums follow the same format: hip-hop artists take off the bullshit 8-Ball jackets of dull rap convention and walk around gloriously naked and absolutely free. But this gets the nod, for me, because of its bravery: the Electric Circus turns out to be a place that exists in Hip-hopolis and Rawk City and Bacharachville and DixieLand and Heaven, all at the same time. Holy crap, people, Com did it: he broke on through to the other side.

Common's career has been a long struggle towards liberation; no one in today's music scene has been more honest about his journey towards becoming a new person than Mr. Lonnie Lynn, Jr.: from Resurrection to (the overly preachy) One Day It'll All Make Sense to Like Water for Chocolate, which I love a lot except that it bent over backwards to make "the hardcore rap fans" happy. Well, here Common makes no concessions to anyone. This album is drenched in musical color that has nothing to do with any fashion or fad: several songs eschew hip-hop altogether. Check out the long portentious grind of "Jimi Was a Rock Star," where Com and his co-writer/paramour/kindred spirit Erykah Badu construct an ode to Hendrix that burns with holy fire and that early Funkadelic sound. Sure, it has about as much to do with rap as my aunt Sharon, but this ode to escape ("Why don't you set me free?") is so beautiful and creepy and grindy that it doesn't matter. (I'm not surprised that Common and Badu got together; I'm just surprised it didn't happen sooner. They're pretty much the same person. All the "hidden" Badu references on "Come Close" -- "are your eyes still green?", "put down your bags" -- are, simply, adorable.)

That's hardly the only departure from prevailing fashion. "New Wave" features the most surprising cameo of the year: Laetitia Sadier comes on to croon one of her Stereolabatypical choruses behind Common's bark: "It's a new wave! Come on!" Jill Scott does a wonderful Billie Holiday impression on the Dr. Buzzard/Louis Armstrong jam "I Love Music," which is like a slammin' update of "I Write the Songs" (proving the Lord works in mysterious ways). And the album closer is "Heaven Somewhere," which is the world's strangest posse cut, an 11-minute joint where all manner of great hip-hop/soul singers (Mary J. Blige, Badu again, Bilal, Omar, Cee-Lo) work together and separately to construct a new sort of gospel track, one in which personal freedom takes precedence over any particular creed. Heaven is not some mothergrabbin' City on the Hill -- it's in the heart, jack, and it's found through playing with the grandkids. (Yeah, Pops Lynn is in the house again.)

But there's lots of hard-edged stuff here too. "Electric Wire Hustler Flower" gets Sonny from P.O.D. shrieking the chorus along with Common, but to an acid-rock track that sounds like Iron Butterfly doing an Iron Butterfly impression. The song that follows it, "The Hustle," is like a good version of the G-Funk stuff that Dre and Snoop used to knock off daily, but it also works as a critique of the capitalist ideals that lead to bangin' and slangin' and rock-selling. And it's not surprising that The Neptunes sound hard, but one of their tracks here, the tough-sounding cruising song "I Got a Right Ta," sets a new standard for big fat '70's-to-the-aughties funk.

But what really makes this record, all Common records really, are the lyrics. He lays back a little here, trusting the stunning music to say some things for him. But that doesn't mean there aren't some verbal Molotov cocktails lurking around every corner. I won't try to quote them all, because it's better that you should find them on your own; trust me, though, that my man's on fire, with pop-culture references to Darius Miles and "My Neck, My Back" and stylistic hat-tips to Kane and L.L. But I can quote you just one that will sum up every single contrarian Soulquarian thing that is perfect about this record. "I used to write shit / To please niggaz / Now I write shit / To freeze niggaz." I couldn't sum it up any better.

If you like Common, check out:
Common, Like Water for Chocolate
Common, One Day It'll All Make Sense
Common, Resurrection
Blackalicious Blazing Arrow
Talib Kweli Quality
Cee-Lo Cee-Lo Green and His Perfect Imperfections
Jimi Hendrix Experience, Electric Ladyland

-- Matt Cibula

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