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Album: Common

Electric Circus, MCA

Routinely around this time of year, there appears a clutch of hip hop albums, some of which deserve more than to get swept away in the seasonal tide of hits compilations and high-profile releases – last year's Even in Darkness by Outkast offshoot The Dungeon Family being a notable example. This year, there's the usual avalanche of offerings from those such as Snoop Dogg, Nas, The Beatnuts, The Roots, and yet another posthumous double-album from 2Pac, but the season's truly significant rap release is this follow-up to 2000's Like Water for Chocolate by Common, one of those rare, ground-breaking records that heralds a game- changing breakthrough for the entire genre.

Routinely around this time of year, there appears a clutch of hip hop albums, some of which deserve more than to get swept away in the seasonal tide of hits compilations and high-profile releases – last year's Even in Darkness by Outkast offshoot The Dungeon Family being a notable example. This year, there's the usual avalanche of offerings from those such as Snoop Dogg, Nas, The Beatnuts, The Roots, and yet another posthumous double-album from 2Pac, but the season's truly significant rap release is this follow-up to 2000's Like Water for Chocolate by Common, one of those rare, ground-breaking records that heralds a game- changing breakthrough for the entire genre.

Working again with the same Soulquarians production collective that teams him with keyboardist James Poyser, beat scientist Jay Dee and Roots drummer Ahmir Thompson, Common raises the bar for conscious hip hop, extolling the virtues of musical openness and humanitarian respect through his "revolutionary planet rap".

As he says in "I Got a Right Ta", "hip hop is changin' – y'all want me to stay the same?". The 5th Dimension-style psychedelic soul of "Aquarius" finds him castigating fellow rappers as "playin' with yourself, thinkin' the game's just wealth". Pushing the envelope even further on "Electric Wire Hustle Flower", he outlines an "Out-of-body experience, hard to explain/ Like the pyramids and gods I remain/ I know pain like Kurt Cobain".

Cobain isn't the only rock reference on Electric Circus, with Hendrix toasted in the extraordinary eight-minute psychedelic soul symphony "Jimi Was a Rock Star", and "New Wave" featuring vocals by Stereolab's Laetitia Sadier, the most daring of a series of collaborations with names such as Erykah Badu, Jill Scott, Prince, Cee-Lo, Bilal, Mary J Blige and The Neptunes' Pharrell Williams.

At every turn, Common takes pains to confront hip hop's ingrained conservatism, asking "How could a nigga be so scared of change?" in "New Wave", and professing his nurturing instinct in "Come Close to Me".

Equally as liberated are the sophisticated backing tracks, which achieve a similarly paradoxical effect of lightness and density to Outkast's, with smoothly insistent funk grooves supporting jazzy electric piano, flute, synth, guitar and horn flourishes in creating adhesively memorable hooks for tracks like "The Hustle", as obvious a hit single as I've heard all year. Infectious and intelligent throughout, Electric Circus is the most heartening recent development in hip hop, the kind of album that might help lead the genre out of its present darkness.


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