This review written in early 2009. Pretend to have that perspective.
Lonnie Rashid Lynn, Jr., known in the hip-hop world as Common, has always been a restless artist. After releasing Like Water for Chocolate to rave reviews in 2000, Common unleashed the highly-experimental and rock-tinged Electric Circus to mixed reviews in 2002, losing part of his fanbase in the process.
That's when Common discovered an up-and-coming producer named Kanye West. "My daughter found Nemo / I found the new Premo" he writes on 2007's Finding Forever, comparing Mr. West to the legendary producer DJ Premier. Thanks in part to phenomenal production and beats that provided a backdrop to his socially conscious lyrics, Common released two critically successful hip-hop albums--Be and Finding Forever--back-to-back, raising the artist to stardom.
But Common is getting bored, much like he did in 2002. Kanye may be a great producer, but he has a distinct, recognizable sound, and in order to avoid monotony, Common has completely changed the sound. After a decade and a half of writing "conscious" style records, and despite the critical and popular success of the last two albums, Common expressed a desire to release a fun dance record that would more likely be heard at the club or party than a war protest. So Common called up Pharrell and enlisted Neptunes production, while veering off the road and writing songs about girls, girls, dancing and girls. Oh, and an out-of-place song about Obama that would fit better on Be than Universal Mind Control.
Common is at his best with the song "Gladiator," which brilliantly switches beats throughout the song with a catchy sample in the chorus and horns in the verse. "They say he's a radical / he don't fit the game / a heart full of glory and a fist full of pain," Common raps as he challenges others to beat him in the rap game. Fans of Barack Obama will enjoy the song "Changes" as Common expresses the hope--albeit unrealistically and tinged with cheesiness--that serious change will come. "Trees is blowin, we see change in the wind / it's a new day and I've got to take it in / See a black man run, we need him to win."
It's a valiant effort and Common deserves credit for doing something new and not falling into the trap of releasing the same record again and again. But the music and especially the lyrics are simply not up to par. The Neptunes beats are good, with a few gems here and there, but Common's lyrics are cringeworthy at points. Take the song "Sex 4 Suga," where Common repeats "Sex for sugar, sugar for sex" over and over during the chorus to a pulsating dance beat. "Oooo you're making my nature rise / we can do more than fantasize / let's do the do, me and you / we can whoa-whoa and whoop-dee-woo." Not exactly Common's brightest lyrics, to say the least.
But in Common's defense, that is not what he is aiming for on this record. He came out and stated very frankly that this is a dance record without political or "conscious" lyrics, just something you can have fun to. And Common accomplishes that goal. Clocking in at a mere 38 minutes with only 10 tracks, it's a tight album and if you are at all into dance music, you will probably dig this.
Note to Common: Now that you've got your Electric Circus Pt. 2 out of your system (and I totally understand why you wanted to make something different), go ahead and call up Kanye and release your proper followup to Finding Forever.