At the beginning of “Heaven Somewhere,” an extremely long song about death that closes his new album, Electric Circus, Common describes a phone conversation with a friend who’s about to turn himself in for an unspecified crime. Common says, “I knew he was a real good person, and this didn’t seem like it was in his spirit. . . . I started thinkin’, ‘Why is doing right so hard?’ ”
This is the question Common can’t put down on Electric Circus. He’s peppered his four previous albums with misogyny (which nobody noticed) naturally, and homophobia (which lots of people did). “Nuthin’ to Do,” a nostalgic piece about his teen years from the ’94 album Resurrection, contains the line “as we got older, we would start ruckus and bang fags.” 2000’s Like Water for Chocolate contains not one, but two pointed comments, including “It’s rumors of gay MCs, just don’t come around me wit’ it/You still rockin’ hickies, don’t let me find out he did it.” These statements are conservative by the metrics of hip-hop and positively friendly compared to the work of imagineers like Eminem, but still worthy of hip-hop’s most ambivalent descriptor: ignorant.
Before, we’ve seen popular MCs demonstrate contrition through a public peripeteia involving religion and apologetic interviews. Reverend Ma$e, you can wait over here with Reverend Run. When the sanitizing is over, we get a Behind the Music special on VH1, and the MC, if lucky, gets a talk show gig. But Lonnie Rashid Lynn, a/k/a Common, wants to work out his demons on the job, as he did with his alcoholism on ’97s One Day It’ll All Make Sense. Before Slug and his peers made emotionally explicit rap common, Common’s self-critique was pretty rare. (Beastie Boy MCA’s ’94 announcement that “the disrespect to women has got to be through” on Ill Communication was more about joining a Riot Boy bloc inside alt-rock than it was about changing the status quo of hip-hop lyrics.) You might counter that, in these last days and times, Common doesn’t need to hit the confessional the way a confirmed shooter like N.O.R.E. does. Common’s fag-bashing always sounded a bit like the bluff overcompensation of a sensitive guy riding with the tough kids on a Saturday night. But whether he’s truly changed or is just appeasing his critics, Common’s made Electric Circus 100 percent politically correct.
The most explicit apology is “Between Me, You & Liberation,” Common’s bid to heal a rape victim, an aunt dying of cancer, and a persecuted gay friend, in that order. It’s almost a public service announcement, but the gospel sprechstimme of guest vocalist Cee-Lo and the quality of Common’s critique make it work. Chances are, though, that before you get to “Liberation,” at track 10, you’ll be mighty nostalgic for the time when Common got into dust-ups with Ice Cube and told stories about his grandma getting robbed on a riverboat casino. If you haven’t actually been to hell and back, your personal self-improvement is a pretty weak narrative. That unnecessary navel-gazing combined with an aggressively squishy musical tack had my hokum meter pinning. We know the routine: Artistic maturation involves reaching beyond your strengths, overdosing on studio tomfoolery, and, inexplicably, slowing everything down. Mr. Lynn, you can wait here with Mr. Hansen.
Album producers James Poyser, Jay Dee, and resident genius Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson of the Roots (known collectively as the Soulquarians) are working on an impressive résumé that includes recent successes D’Angelo’s Voodoo and the Roots’ Phrenology. Electric Circus lands somewhere between the former’s mentholated soul-music hum and the latter’s choppy, channel-surfing buzz. Beautifully engineered, Circus sounds chocolaty and recombinant even when it doth protest the Enlightened Guy angle too much. Part of the problem is Common’s delivery. Earnestly artistic to a fault, he is in constant danger of setting his own house on fire with all the incense. “Come Close” is the radio tune, an ode to Common’s very famous girlfriend, Erykah Badu, that ends up in Too Much Information territory. Compared to the snappy charm of his last bicycle-built-for-two hit (“The Light” from Like Water), “Come Close” sounds humorless and pointlessly jazzy.
When Common tries to fight his general tendency to break out the wine and candles, things get worse. The guitar-heavy “Electric Wire Hustler Flower” revolves around the image of Common screaming in the dark (hard to imagine) and the sound of Common screaming the chorus (hard to listen to). “Heaven Somewhere” is well intentioned, as are most eulogies, but too indebted to pot aesthetics and the hipster cadences of Lightnin’ Rod’s “Hustler’s Convention” (you know how everybody sounds at a poetry slam? like that) for the message to trump the mannerisms.
But Common’s healing process doesn’t always sound dopey. The upside-down groove of “Soul Power” recalls the lovely Afro-funk thread running through Like Water, and “Star *69” features the Actual Person Named Prince contributing stoned back rubs on keyboards and guitar. Even more welcome as guests, the Neptunes bring back the concrete on “I Got a Right Ta.” Three more bona fide beats like it would have helped, but in the absence of that, we’ll choose “I Am Music” as our Promising Next Step. Over a paraphrasing of light ’40s swing, Common gets to play Cab Calloway in a dashiki. The sophistication and bounce suit his cadences and remove the obligation to sound ponderous about everything. If we can’t have more storytelling rhymes and must bear witness to the Beauty of Badu, let’s try to keep things popping, OK? Being good will take care of itself.