Friday, May 27, 2005

Defending Electric Circus

All the publicity and hype surrounding Common's new album, Be, has focused on two things: the collaboration with kindred spirit Kanye West and the "return to form" for Common after the disappointing sales of his last album Electric Circus. In just about every interview and article, Common has to defend the album and its merits. He gives reasons why the album sounded the way it did (he wasn't into much hip-hop at the time) and his motivations for doing it (he wanted to expand the boundaries of hip-hop). The general consensus is that Common's fans didn't like Electric Circus and neither did the general record buying public. The album only had one single, "Come Close" which featured Mary J. Blige and was produced by The Neptunes. However, I feel that the album has gotten a bad rap and is a wonderful, innovative album that audiences just weren't ready for.

Electric Circus is an album that is influenced by rock. It doesn't combine rock with hip-hop in the way acts like Linkin Park or Rage Against The Machine did. Instead, it uses rock as a starting point to create songs that are still hip-hop, much in the same way that A Tribe Called Quest used jazz samples to create the soundscapes of their album The Low End Theory. Also, the album doesn't use rock from the 80's or the 90's as a starting point, but rock primarily from the 1970's, the progressive, experimental kind. Common said in interviews around the time of this album that he had gotten into artists such as Traffic. The result is a sound that is vastly different from any of Common's other albums, even Like Water For Chocolate.

Each song on Electric Circus has a distinct sound. "Soul Power" has a pulsing bass-heavy beat that is punctuated by handclaps and a spacy synth. "Electric Wire Hustler Flower" has a slow, funky sound with a hint of rock courtesy of Sonny from P.O.D. "Come Close" is a Neptunes production that is smooth and subdued while "I Got A Right Ta" is a Neptunes production that sounds closer to N.E.R.D. territory. "New Wave" is the perfect title for this song with a beat that is clearly influenced by New Wave music, complete with a guest appearance by Laetitia Sadler of Stereolab. "Star *69 (PS With Love)" sounds a lot like a Prince song in part because Prince himself plays guitar and keyboards on it. "I Am Music" has a jazzy feel that is perfect for the vocals of guest Jill Scott. "Between Me, You & Liberation" is a smooth jam worthy of The Roots and one that shows Common's maturity in its subject matter. "Jimi Was A Rock Star" is probably the least hip-hop track on the album, a tribute to Jimi Hendrix that is unusual but compelling.

With all the musical invention on display here, there is one notable flaw in the album--the lyrics. Common is an artist known for his lyrics, a "rapper's rapper" as they say. On this album, though, the lyrics took kind of a back seat to the sound. The lyrics aren't bad by any means, but they aren't exactly what many would expect to hear from Common. The man who once said "In a circle of faggots, your name is mentioned" in a song shows sympathy/empathy for homosexuals on a verse in "Between Me, You & Liberation." The man known for his battle with Ice Cube and for "I Used To Love H.E.R." is rapping on a song called "Aquarius." It probably left some fans wondering "What kind of stuff is this?"

Ultimately, hip-hop is not a genre that rewards artists for trying new things most of the time. Experimenting is considered a bad thing and normally doesn't yield high record sales. OutKast is the exception to the rule but as a duo, the two of them balance each other out. If Big Boi was as daring as Andre 3000, they would never have sold as many records as they have. I'm not trying to say that hip-hop isn't good if it isn't different. You can make great music without necessarily reinventing the wheel. You can even create new sounds without being radically different. Kanye West's key to success has been to primarily sample old soul songs and speed them up. Hip-hop has sampled old soul songs for years, but Kanye found a new, creative way to do it...and ended up creating a sound of his own.

I think Electric Circus will be remembered as a daring, creative, and underrated album. It isn't an album for everyone. No other hip-hop album sounds like it...literally. Instead of hurting Common, it really added to his legacy. It shows just how flexible, creative, and damn near brilliant he actually is. Few artists of any genre could produce an album such as this and even fewer artists could bounce back from the commercial disappointment and make a new album that is friendlier to the mainstream without compromising. Every Common album I've heard has been a joy to listen to and I hope that Common continues to make music for a long, long time.

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