Oh boy. We should have seen this coming. Between hanging out with the Roots and falling in love with Erykah Badu, Common has been fixing for something new, and partially crazy, for a while, and now it is finally upon us. Electric Circus is one of the most eclectic, bizarre records hip-hop has seen in recent time.
Such distinctions do not carry with them normative evaluations, however, and this album has both many strengths and many flaws. Oddly, though, the record is almost more about the growth of its executive producer, Roots drummer Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson, than Common himself. Those familiar with ?uestlove’s profound appreciation for and curiosity about music will quickly begin to appreciate this distinction as they listen to a varied album that draws as heavily on rock and roll as it does on standard hip-hop elements.
Thompson has endowed this LP with a wide range of sounds. The record’s opening song, “Ferris Wheel,” is a quiet, smooth instrumental piece featuring the infrequent, melodic chants of Vinia Mojica and Marie Daulne, evocative of a pristine, bucolic setting. Any remnants of these serene feelings are later completely destroyed by the loud, energetic “Electric Wire Hustler Flower,” an electric guitar-carried song whose chorus features Common and Sonny of P.O.D. shouting the title in a scratchy harmony. Similar juxtapositions of sounds are found throughout Circus, as are a bevy of instrumental jams between tracks that serve as the album’s transitions.
Noting the significant influence of the Roots’ drummer and sound mastermind does not diminish Common’s creativity or talent, however. The verses spit by Lonnie Lynn at times border on poetry, and as always, he makes use of his forum by filling the songs with poignant ideas about love, black society, the music industry and knowledge of self. “I’m the only cat in hip-hop who could go to a thrift shop / Bring that up to the ghetto and still get props” is just one example of Common’s keen awareness concerning his place in music, a niche from which he commands great respect by being himself – a funky cat with diverse interests and influences.
As alluded to previously, Circus is a mixture of good and bad. The best tracks, “Come Close” and “I Got a Right Ta,” are Neptunes productions, the former a smoother R&B song while the latter a funky jam with a sinister bass. The unique “New Wave” also deserves mention for its beautiful chorus. Other, more experimental songs, like “Star *69” and “Jimi was a Rock Star,” don’t work because they sound flat and boring. These shortcomings are illustrative of the album’s theme, growth, and all that comes with it.