Saturday, February 14, 2009

CD Review: Universal Mind Control by Common

After two critically acclaimed albums with Kanye West at the helm, Common goes in a different direction with his new album Universal Mind Control.  Executive produced by Pharrell Williams and produced entirely by The Neptunes and Mr. DJ, this album isn’t without its charms.  However, it's also not nearly as good as Common's previous work.

The first thing that sets Universal Mind Control apart from Common’s previous two albums is the sound.  While his recent music has been more organic, the music on this album is very electronic.  In fact, there are no samples to speak of on the entire album.  Fortunately, that doesn’t mean that the beats aren’t good.

The Neptunes provide most of the production on the album and come up with some interesting, unusual sounds.  The title track has a futuristic sound complete with spacey synths, artificial drums, and Pharrell Williams’ robotic vocals.  “Punch Drunk Love” floats on an odd combination of 1980’s sounds, a variety of layered vocals (both normal and auto-tuned), and Kanye West on the chorus. Even with its hard-hitting drums and synths, “Gladiator” has a quirky feel thanks to a weird piano bridge and horns that seem to come out of nowhere.

If you’re looking for examples of Common’s lyrical prowess, you’ll have to look elsewhere.  Lyrics take a back seat on Universal Mind Control and this, more than anything, sinks the album. “Sex 4 Suga” actually features this terrible line:  “But I don't mind being behind / 'Cause I'ma touch you where the sun don't shine.” More often than not, the lyrics are just pretty shallow.  The exception is “Changes,” a track produced by Mr. DJ and geared towards young people. This is the only song on the album that's close to the type of music fans expect from Common.

Universal Mind Control
can probably be best described as a diversion, a chance for Common to make some lighter, more party-oriented music.  It's reminiscent of Q-Tip's debut solo album, Amplified, in that respect.  The problem with the album isn't that Common decided to make this type of is that the music itself isn't that good.  It's unfortunate that smart artists like Common feel that the only way to make a party album is to dumb things down.  This album isn't nearly as bad as some hip-hop but for Common it's a bit of a letdown.

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