Since his debut, Common has come a long way. Aside from his debut Can I Borrow A Dollar? which didn’t live up to expectations, Common made a clean sweep since Resurrection. Common started out as an underground artist with a mention in The Source magazine’s Unsigned Hype section on his first album. Resurrection, while now considered a jazz-rap classic, was still an underground album at the time and did not have the commercial success it was expected to have. One Day It’ll All Make Sense received the same treatment. Until then, Common’s recipe of smooth flow, perfect diction and No I.D.’s jazzy production failed to take off in the mainstream while satisfying the more discerning Hip Hop fans in search of authentic rap and clever lyrics.
In the late 90’s, Common left his record label, Relativity, which had been with him since the beginning, for MCA, probably in search of greater commercial success. In this change, Common finally left Chicago for New York, a major shift in his career. From that point on, the young Chicago producer No I.D. would no longer appear on production as he used to on Common’s previous albums, in favor of his new collective, the Soulquarians, composed of instrumentalists, beatmakers, crooners and rappers.
Although the Soulquarians are generally quite close to Common’s original style with Jazz and Soul sounds, Common will change his style quite radically under this new artistic direction led by The Roots drummer Questlove. His new friends will accompany him in the production but also in the singing and in the rapping, which gives Common a less raw and less minimalist style than usually, which will start with the first album under this new direction with Like Water For Chocolate.
Like Water For Chocolate will remain quite classic in its approach and still in the Jazzy/Soul sounds that Common is used to explore. But the album will be much more complex and sophisticated in style, and allows Common to reach a greater commercial success. He is no longer an underground artist and moves to mainstream status with tracks like The Light.
Where Like Water For Chocolate could be seen as an acceptable experimental first attempt in the sense that it remains very anchored in the bases of traditional Hip Hop, Electric Circus will be even more experimental and eclectic. In this sense, some will consider that the Soulquarians killed Common’s career. Is it right? Even without considering the commercial success and the access to mainstream rapper status, the answer is NO. Common made a very interesting move that allowed him to explore more eclectic sounds as early as Like Water For Chocolate, which he would confirm with Electric Circus.
CommonI wasn’t feeling hip hop. So my motivation for that album were other genres of music, like Pink Floyd and Jimi Hendrix. It wasn’t hip hop.
On Electric Circus, Common goes for sounds that are at the same time Hip Hop, Pop, Rock, Soul, Electronic and more slightly Jazz. A strange mix one might think, but in reality not if it is well executed. And with the talented Soulquarians, the execution can hardly be botched. Yes, it is different, yes it is daring, yes it is eclectic, yes it is experimental. One should not expect the minimalist approach of Resurrection. Once you consider this, the album is a musical masterpiece.
Questlove leads the majority of the production accompanied by James Poyser, J Dilla and Pino Palladino. After an intro with an African singing chorus on Ferris Wheel, Soul Power starts the adventure with a drum beat and a simple and effective melody that is close to a more traditional Boom Bap, where Common tames the rhythm with a precise and rhythmic flow. The continuation will be more cleaving, abstract tracks like Aquarius or Star 69 make their appearance. Electric Wire Hustle Flower brings a Grunge aspect with Sonny Sandoval of P.O.D. for aggressive shouted chorus. I Am Music explores Swing sounds, on its side Come Close is much softer and melodic. New Wave offers a contrast between the soft chorus and the bouncy futuristic production. The electric guitar on I Got A Right Ta produced by Pharrell and his beautifully bluezy vocals work perfectly.
Common is as usual impeccable with a limpid diction and enunciation, adapting perfectly to the beat, sometimes calmer on Come Close or more nervous on I Got A Right Ta. The Soulquarians team accompanies him to lay down magnificent sung choruses, Bilal, Erykah Badu as well as other Soul singers, Vinia Mojica, Omar, Mary J Blige or Jill Scott. Common denounces sexual abuse and its psychological consequences on Between Me, You and Liberation. Jimi Was a Rock Star is a magnificent tribute to Jimi Hendrix on a progressive instrumental track in duet with Erykah Badu. No less than 8 people come to close the album for a 10 minute track, Heaven Somewhere, where they exchange their interpretation of heaven.
The album can be confusing in the sense that it is much more instrumental than Common’s usual, with many passages without lyrics, neither rap nor singing. But in reality, that’s also the beauty of the album. While the lyrics are well crafted, the album focuses more on the instrumentation than the lyrics, which sometimes tends to put Common slightly in the background, especially since most of the choruses are sung by guests. One could think that this is more of a producer’s album where the artistic direction takes over the musical will of the rapper. Even if the trio of producers, Questlove, J Dilla and James Poyser are indeed the great artisans of the album’s musicality, Common is not behind in this artistic will. Electric Circus is an electric production where Common draws his inspiration from various sources. Like the cover, inspired by Midnight Marauders or Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band by the Beatles, Common wanted to depict the 87 people who inspired him to make this album.
After leaving Chicago, Common went in search of new sounds, which he began to explore with the Soulquarians on Like Water For Chocolate and Electric Circus. He then asscoiated with Kanye West on Be and Finding Forever, and with Pharrell Williams on Universal Mind Control, before returning a decade later with his early producer, No I.D., on The Dreamer/The Believer and Nobody Smiling. Common has always been able to make interesting moves in his career to explore new sounds and renew himself, Electric Circus is the first one. He proves that he is capable of exploring unusual sounds with a beautiful experimental album that pushes the boundaries of rap. It’s daring, original and impeccable.