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Common: Electric Circus

Mark Anthony Neal gives Common's "Conscious" rap its props.

Common's Electric Circus
…Like Hearing Hip-hop
for the First Time

By Mark Anthony Neal
SeeingBlack.com Music Critic

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So here's the burden-you've been heralded as this generation's celebrity hip-hop intellectual. You know, the kind of brotha given to politically savvy flossin' in OneWorld magazine and on 106th Park. Common hadn't necessarily asked for this. But Like Water for Chocolate (2000) changed all that and Common was elevated to the upper echelon with the assistance of top notch production by the Soulquarian click. Of course Badu's star turn on Brown Sugar's "Love of My Life" also helped as Common's somewhat obscure "I Used to Love H.E.R" (Resurrection, 1994) became a seminal text in the critical mythology surrounding the "death" of hip-hop. If hip-hop had been Diddied to death (no really, bruh more annoying now then when he was doin' the "stepin' fetchit" alongside Mase) then Common's latest sonic treatise feels like a rebirth—as if you're hearing hip-hop for the very first time.

Up front, Common is to be commended for always pushing beyond the boundaries of industry expectation and the general artistic complacency within hip-hop. Common would have been perfectly within his right to record Like Water for Chocolate Part 2, as such a recording would easily outpace what passes as "good" hip-hop to the folks at Viacom and AOL Time Warner. Instead, Common chose to blow the joint to hell, much to the initial dismay of his label. Indeed, after a casual listen to Electric Circus, one is likely to be surprised that the project got the green light, especially among folks so often caught up in how a project can be easily consumed for the M(B)T(E)V(T) crowd. Electric Circus is part of a conscious attempt by Common and his fellow travelers, like The Roots and Talib Kweli, to wrest control of the artistic vanguard within hip-hop. While Talib's Quality and The Roots' Phrenology break new ground for both acts, Electric Circus is clearly the most adventurous of the trio of releases.

"Come Close", the lead single from Electric Circus is the project's safest venture. The song features vocals from Mary J. Blige and follows closely to the strategy of Badu's "Love of My Life" in making Common user-friendly for urban radio. It is the most commercially accessible track in Common's canon. The pairing with label mate Blige is also another indication that Common has come to terms with industry politics (as he admits in "Love of My Life") and has found some common ground with some of his bling-bling brethren. In this regard, "Come Close" is clearly an olive branch to his label, giving them the kind of Viacom-ready vehicle to promote the album. But the track is not a case of Com selling out. As Common's intro suggests,

"Come Close" is "just a fly love song" and one meant for his current boo, Ms. Badu. "Come Close" is one of two tracks produced by The Neptunes (what?), who clearly brought their A-game for Common. The other Neptunes' track, "I Got a Right Ta", might as well serve as a manifesto for Common's artistic license ("hip hop is changin', y'all want me to stay the same?"). He defends his right to record with the ghetto mainstream in Blige and The Neptunes ("I ain't switch over, I just made my own lane") and celebrates his push beyond the "little black box" of black music. "I Got A Right Ta" has the feel of some of the best tracks on N.E.R.D.'s damn-near brilliant In Search Of…and is a glimpse into the post-hip-hop wasteland (some T.S. Eliot for the ghetto head-nodders). Pharell (vocally, the hip-hop era's answer to Curtis Mayfield) is omnipresent (as usual) on the track singing the song's hook ("I want to ride in my car/smoke my (expletive)/Keep my head high/let chrome spin").

The fuzz-ball rock groove of "I Got a Right Ta" gets revisited on other tracks from Electric Circus. Stereolab's Laetitia Sadier (singing in both French and English) collaborates with Common on "New Wave," a track which attempts to document some of the pitfalls of America's "Brave New World" (RIP Mary Hansen). On the track, Common takes some artists to task for ceaseless self-promotion ("Monkeys dance around for MTV spots… How far will a nigga go just for attention?") reminding them that they have "forgot the mission". Charting some of the dynamics of the "New Wave," Common observes in the second verse that he's seen "hype become fame/against the grain become mainstream" as the very margins that some of us once claimed at the site of political and cultural resistance have become the center (showing some luv to bell hooks). Acknowledging the twisted reality of America's new racism, Com admits that "he didn't really see white until I went north" speaking directly to the common myth that it's all about old-school southern red-necks as opposed to techno-age poster boys for racism like Trent Lott and Ralph Reed who were given passes (at least until recently) for not looking, talking, and smelling like Bull Connor or Strom Thurmond.

The flow is even more rough and rugged on "Electric Wire Hustler Flower", where Common is joined by P.O.D.'s Sonny. The theme again revolves around Common's transformation from wannabe rapper to pseudo-savior ("This is the story of a pimp stick that became a staff"). As he puts it in the song, "I used to write shit to please niggas/Now I write shit to freeze niggas." The Common as savior theme is even more distinct on the ethereal "Aquarius" as Bilal and Badu use the song's chorus to describe Common as the "water that arrives/To purify the world/Flying through the night." As Com describes it himself, "I take you way out/where you never been before". For all of the talk about Common's musical forays into the styles of Pink Floyd, Joni Mitchell and Hendrix, much of Electric Circus lyrically sounds like an old-school boast rap.

More than any of his "conscious" peers, Common has never given up on the idea that hip-hop in its most organic form, is a site where young Black folks waged rhetorical warfare with each other. This point is made clear on the J-Dilla produced "Soul Power," which is the most traditional hip-hop track on the disc. Challenging the notion that fellow "conscious" rappers shouldn't take aim at each other, Common rips into his more celebrated (or rather famous) peer Mos Def ("Nigga breathe, can tell by how you rap you don't believe/ain't hungry no more/so off me you feed"). After detailing his own "boulevard credentials" (that's for my "nigga" William Jelani Cobb) Common accuses Mos of fronting on his own ghetto-pass ("paint picture of the ghetto like JJ/You the Ray J of this rap world")—as phony as say Ray J's transformation from Brandy's little brother to a Lil' Kim chasing knuckle-head thug. More directly, Com describes Mos as "See through, tryin' out act Don Cheadle" which is the line that specifically calls Mos out as Mos replaced Cheadle in the stage production of Suzi Lori-Park's Pulitzer winning play Topdog/Underdog. The clear point of Common's attack seems to be that Mos Def has become complacent as a rap artist, resting on the laurels of BlackStar's debut and his solo joint Black on Both Sides which was released nearly four years ago (perhaps more comfortable flossin' opposite Jeffrey Wright and Queen Latifah and cashing checks from Nike?). In the second verse of "Soul Power," Common shouts down a more logical target, becoming one of many folks who are quickly tiring of Ja Rule ("I'd rather listen to silence, than you holla/Borrowed your persona, from the late that made 'Dear Mama'").

In a turn of events, Common puts his hypermasculine tendencies in check on the thoughtful "Between Me, You and Liberation." Featuring decidedly low-fi vocals from Cee Lo, the track details the lives of three folks facing very different life threatening challenges, including a young woman who was sexually abused by her father and an aunt diagnosed with cancer. As filmmaker Aishah Shadihah Simmons documents in her brilliantly brave documentary NO!, heterosexual black man have often been behind the curve in speaking out about intra-racial sexual violence against women and children (see communal reaction to Mike Tyson and R. Kelly), so Common is to be commended for his own growth in this regard. No doubt a measure of the impact that Ms. Badu has had on his life, Common is moving beyond his "bitch/queen" complex (you know where black women are either bitches/hos or Queen Mama Zulu and rarely the "round-the-way" girls that we are most familiar with) and beginning to find real empathy for the conditions of black women.

"Between Me, You and Liberation" also allows Common to deal with his homophobia. Many critics (including this one) have taken Common to task for the incongruence of his rabid hyper-masculine homophobia and his otherwise progressive personal politics. The third verse of the song is Common's response to his homophobia as he relates the story of a cat who he had known "for like what seemed forever" and with whom he had shared childhood dreams "about going pro" who acknowledges his homosexuality to Common. Admitting that his "whole life it was in steel/This ain't the way that men feel" Common finally resolves "how can I judge him?/Had to accept him if I truly loved him." While Common can be faulted for essentially equating homosexuality with the tragedies of cancer and sexual violence against children, "Between Me, You and Liberation" is one of those rare occasions when a male hip-hop artist owns up to his investment in some of the genres more unsavory sexual politics—on par with Eddie Murphy's equally stand-up "apology" to Queer audiences in his poignant exchange with Miguel Nunez in the film Life.

Electric Circus is perhaps most brilliant during those moments when Common isn't making bridges to the so-called Rock world, but rather pushing the boundaries of black pop. Common and Jill Scott get their swing-on with "I Am Music", a track reminiscent of the Atomic-era styled Disco of Dr. Buzzard's Original Savannah Band ("Cherchez Le Femme" and "Sunshowers"). But it is the disc's closing tracks that are the project's clear standouts. Common unveils his blue-bassed singing voice (opposite Badu) on the tribute "Jimi Was a Rock Star". The song begins with a light march groove that rolls into a rumble. While the song's title suggests the obvious, the song's brilliance is in trying to make Hendrix's legacy relevant to the people who birthed him—a large majority of whom have never really connected to his music. According to the couple, Hendrix's image as a "Rock Star" was simply a mask used to search for that "magic place that he could touch in the sky/just to get his people high." By the time the duo is chanting "Jimi come on, why don't you set me free"—some six minutes into the flow—the song teeters close to an orgasmic frenzy. Many critics, who otherwise loved the disc (including Kelefa Sanneh in the NYTs) have naysayed Common and Badu's effort. While the overdrawn and overblown Hendrix-like closing solo by the otherwise solid Jeff Lee Johnson could have disappeared, most folks are missing the point. "Jimi Was A Rock Star" is not about a hip-hop version of "Castles in the Sand" but bringing Hendrix (at least his spirit) back into the ring dance of Black musical culture. Very few artists of Common and Badu's generation would have such an inclination and it is fully in line with their efforts to embrace other disparate musical figures in the African Diaspora including Fela Kuti.

Common has clearly aligned himself with a generation of "NewBlack" artists who are pushing past the accepted boundaries of contemporary black pop. He uses the closing song, "Heaven Somewhere," to showcase many of those voices. The song begins with Common's spoken-word intro about a conversation with a French-based homie about to turn himself in to the authorities for some unnamed crime. It is revealed that Common and his friend have shared a bond over the spiritual word and Common's recitation of Matthew 24—"no one knows the hour, nor do they know the day, but the kingdom is near"—becomes the spring board for a seven minute musical sermon about the Promised Land. Six vocalists beginning with Brit-born Omar and followed by Cee-lo, Bilal, Jill Scott, Mary J, and Badu each give their own personal take on the concept of "heaven." The brilliance of the song lies in ?uestlove's production which shifts according to the unique styles of each vocalists. Cee-Lo, the closest thing in hip-hop to a gospel singer, stops the show with his opening line "your time is a terrible thing to waste…," providing a funky revision to the United Negro College Fund's (UNCF) signature tag that a "mind is a terrible thing to waste." Pimp-daddy Bilal, flowing like the post-modern Daddy Grace that he is, acknowledges that " the feelin' just keeps on lifting me higher and it keeps on flowin'." Given Bilal's musical persona, the line embraces the generally unacknowledged fluidity between spiritual rapture and sexual pleasure. Such a concept is made immediately clear during Jill Scott's verse, where she floats her upper register above the groove like a heavenly orgasm. Scott serves as the bridge between masculine and feminine visions of heaven and it is Mary J who picks up the mantle reminding folks why, when all is said and done, she may quite well be the voice of her generation (see Sekou Sundiata's "Mary J Blues" for confirmation). Like virtually all of Common's previous discs, the closing track features the wisdom of his pops Lonnie Lynn, Sr., who admits that "heaven is being Pops" and being able to be in the game long enough to see the seeds that you put in the field begin to grow their own.

My first listen to Electric Circus occurred during my morning sojourn at my usual writing and listening spot at a local Starbucks. Midway through "Jimi Was A Rock Star"—as I begin to notice the crescendo it was reaching for—I realized that my eyes had begun to moisten, a state that was heightened as I listened to "Heaven Somewhere." I have had these experiences before. I once had to pull off of the New York State Thruway to compose myself while listening to Donny Hathaway's "Thank You Master for My Soul" ("cause the walls of my room were not the walls of my grave/my bed was not my cooling board/y'all don't know what I'm talking about!"). But I have never had this experience while listening to hip-hop, excepting perhaps while listening to Pete Rock and CL Smooth's "They Reminisce over You." It struck me that I was indeed listening to a new moment in hip-hop-as if I was hearing something life affirming for the very first time. Electric Circus is not the perfect recording. Within black pop, perfect is reserved for things like Marvin Gaye's What's Going On, Aretha Franklin's Amazing Grace, Bob Marley's Kaya or Prince's Around the World in a Day and even those recordings had their perfect imperfections. In his seminal text Blues People, Amiri Baraka (still on his grind) states that the "spirits do not descend unless there is music." And it is clear that the spirits were all up in the place when Common et al recorded Electric Circus, and that presence speaks more to the greatness of the project than any words a critic could assign to it.

Soul Babies: Black Popular Culture and the Post-Soul Aesthetic (Routledge) by Mark Anthony Neal was named one of the Top-Ten Books of 2002 by Africana.com.

In Soul Babies, Mark Anthony Neal explains the complexities and contradictions of black life and culture after the end of the Civil Rights era. He traces the emergence of what he calls a "post-soul aesthetic," a transformation of values that marked a profound change in African American thought and experience. Mark Anthony Neal draws upon his encyclopedic knowledge of black popular culture to examine the tension between a legacy of political activism and a more complex, ironic view of race and culture. The Cosby Show, the Boondocks comic strip, an R. Kelly ballad, Eddie Murphy's comedy, and blaxploitation films are all part of his vivid synthesis of new cultural forms and energies. Lively and provocative, Soul Babies offers a valuable new way of thinking about black popular culture and the legacy of the sixties.

Mark Anthony Neal is a professor of English at the State University of New York at Albany. He earned his doctorate from the State University of New York at Buffalo and an undergraduate degree from the State University of New York College at Fredonia. He is the author of the forthcoming Songs in the Key of Black Life: A Rhythm and Blues Nation which will be published in June. Neal resides in Schenectady, NY with his wife and two young daughters.)

-- February 4, 2003

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