Sunday, July 1, 2012

Art and Opinions Are Made to Clash: Common's "Electric Circus" Turns 10

Still from the video "Come Close"
The Chicago born MC Common (Lonnie Rashid Lynn, Jr.), had been on the grind for a decade when his fifth recording Electric Circus manifested in the winter of 2002. With Like Water for Chocolate (2000), Common had his first true taste of commercial acceptance.

That acceptance was sweetened by the fact that he didn't have to compromise his artistic muse to achieve it. The stage for Electric Circus was arranged for Common to continue to push the boundaries of hip-hop and what it could accomplish. The question Electric Circus ended up posing was if hip-hop evolution was as fashionable as it had been made out to be, and if Common (one of its many ambassadors) could survive being the scapegoat for its supposed excesses?

The History
Rising to prominence in 1999, a group of contemporary urban musicians formed a collective responsible for creating undeniable classics of that period. The Soulquarians, whose name derived from astrology, boasted the cream of neo-soul and hip-hop artists, producers, and session players. Members included Talib Kweli, Mos Def, Erykah Badu, James Poyser,
?uestlove (of The Roots), Q-Tip (of A Tribe Called Quest), Bilal, D'Angelo, Common, and the late, prolific J Dilla.

Starting with '99's Things Fall Apart (The Roots), a rush of albums came out of this collective's camp: Voodoo by D'Angelo (2000), Like Water for Chocolate by Common (2000), Mama's Gun by Erykah Badu (2000), 1st Born Second by Bilal (2001),  and Phrenology by The Roots (2002). Of the six albums, five attained gold and platinum awards in the U.S.A. The Soulquarians were a small part in the larger curiosity of black music and its recurring obsession with the notion of '70's R&B/jazz resurrection.  While socially conscious hip-hop and R&B had cropped up at various intervals throughout the 1990's, by the end of the decade it had gotten its wind..

Common himself had been one of those fresh faces to latch onto the birthing of expressive hip-hop with his Relativity Records era albums like Resurrection (1994) and One Day It'll All Make Sense (1997). Once he landed with MCA for his fourth LP, Like Water for Chocolate, Common's flows were tighter, his music grander, and his timing perfect for bridging the gap between taste makers, corner boys, and soul aficionados. Despite gaining traction on the charts, Common wasn't satisfied to rest on that. His next move on Electric Circus eyed progressive hip-hop in ways that his progenitors and followers could only imagine. Electric Circus also acted as a profound statement on Common's personal mindset, his romantic status (he was seeing Badu at the time), and the limitations he wanted to break not just as an artist, but a man.

The Record
Community plays a big factor in hip-hop music and Electric Circus, as its title implied, had a large cast of major and minor characters. Common wrote on all the cuts, but the Soulquarians crew pitched in too: ?uestlove (production, drums, hand-claps), J Dilla (drums, Moog, keyboards), James Poyser (production, guitar), Erykah Badu and Bilal (backing vocals). Excusing the Soulquarians group, Electric Circus also benefited from a host of contributing individuals featured as guests: Marie Daulne (of Zap Mama), Vinia Mojica, Sonny Sandoval (of P.O.D.), Mary J. Blige, Laetitia Sadier (of Stereolab), Pharrell, Cee-lo, Jill Scott, Prince, and Pino Pallodino to name some.

Additional stills from the "Come Close" music video
Recording commenced between 2001 through 2002, and the resulting efforts were mesmeric. Electric Circus substituted the jazzier sides of his last few records for futuristic bombast ("Soul Power"), ephemeral chill ("Star * 69 (P.S. With Love)"), and raging rock fits ("Electric Wire Hustler Flower").

"Electric Wire Hustler Flower," divided between a hammering, hollered chorus before diving into the verses where Common navigated through ghostly backing vocals with a frightening surgical air. Lines like "Enter this game with tricks and envy, I forget the game to remain an emcee! Room in this mind that's still empty only fulfilled through prophecy!" Common continued to make sure his voice was heard, but he kept his vision squarely on the psychological tip. His skills as a lyricist had not been lost in the quest for a broader sound. Elsewhere, music pooled into an indescribable whole, see the liquid shifts of "Aquarius." There were fun experiments like the '20's era Harlem big band of "I Am Music" that exposed the playful side of Common. Love blushed in the dapper duet of "Come Close," where Mary J. Blige colored the chorus with her saucy tones, or the aural sex of the previously discussed "Star * 69...".

Common also took on unthinkable challenges with "Between Me, You, and Liberation". Against a metamorphic backdrop (a repeating theme), Common spun three stories, one of sexual abuse, cancer related death, and a coming out story. Common, while not nearly as homophobic as some of his peers, allowed a smidgen of that influence to seep into his older work. Here, Common confronts and conquers his homophobia as his best friend not only comes out to him, but that friend overcomes his fear to be himself. It was a revolutionary lyric and moment in hip-hop culture, one not often identified for embracing the GLBTQ community.

The songs ended with instrumental vignettes that ranged from tribal, jazz-fusion, and Minneapolis funk before leading to the next track. Excusing some nonsensical silliness ("Jimi Was a Rockstar"), Electric Circus brimmed with artistic freedom and unobtrusive guests that let Common lead as the ringmaster, in charge of his own menagerie of music fancies.

The Impact
Electric Circus released on December 10th, 2002 amid a turbulent time. MCA Records was undergoing a change, it was being dismantled and absorbed into Geffen Records. While transitioning, the label didn't see a commercial future for the project and as a result the record immediately languished. Electric Circus placed #47 on the U.S. Billboard 200 Album Chart, while receiving a warmer reception at #9 on the U.S. Top R&B/Hip-Hop Album Chart. Only one single was pulled from the LP, "Come Close" (#65 U.S. Hot 100, #21 U.S. Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Singles, #18 U.S. Hot Rap Singles).  The scenario was disappointing after the win scored with Like Water for Chocolate just two years before.
Single cover for "Come Close"

Critically, the album met a better fate. Village Voice writer and mega music critic Robert Christgau lauded the album, giving it a solid "B" rating:
Sometimes brave men march off into the swamp and get seriously lost, so let's hope Captain ?uestlove and his s?uad remembered the DEET. Vocal flow's not the problem, and set to the beat-smart fusion-lite of Like Water for Chocolate, the humanity of the well-meaning poetry would probably outweigh all the forced similes and sentimental lapses. Outfitted in this music, however, Common's pretensions stand up and do jumping jacks.
Mark Anthony Neal of PopMatters captured the immediate sentiment of what Electric Circus stood for:
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.
There were the unimpressed, and they gave a mannered explanation to the resistance the general public had to the album, Nick Southall of Stylus Magazine shared:

Not sure exactly what happened in the time since 2000’s excellent Like Water For Chocolate, but it appears to have had a rather odd affect on one Lonnie Lynn. Where before there was socially-conscious jazz-inflected hip hop born of a solid foundation of Tribe Called Quest and parental discipline, now there is...psychedelic rock? 
Consensus splits down the middle today regarding the record and its long term stature in Common's work. Even those that normally wouldn't have embraced the emcee but did on Like Water for Chocolate, were put off by the edge of experimentation of Electric Circus. It's something common (forgive the pun) among a segment of the black populace. If something in the culture doesn't fit into a predetermined racial slot, throw it out. Electric Circus had become the sacrificial lamb to the larger pretensions of the now overcrowded realm of neo-soul and hip-hop. It also announced the (unofficial) end, or hiatus, of The Soulquarians clique. Common himself, of course, bounced back with Be (2005) with assistance/production from Kanye West. It became his biggest hit record to date.

"Come Close" featuring Mary J. Blige
Directed By: Sanaa Hamri

Finger pointing has occurred for who, or what, caused the genesis for Electric Circus. Many attribute it to his time spent with Badu, but to pinpoint one person or period misses the point. Common was influenced by a plethora of people, places, art, and things. He was an active participant, at that junction, in a genuine movement known for change.

Willingly or not, if you become the figurehead to that kind of a movement, it can be easy to be lumped in with a group if it seems they're all doing the same thing. Yet, the energy that dances across Electric Circus makes it something wholly unique in the Soulquarians niche, as well as hip-hop, soul, and popular music in general. Its wild energy, its need to communicate and express the journey of a young man at a crossroads helps Electric Circus continually reach new audiences today. Those are the markings of a classic. Four and a half out of five stars.-QH

[Editor's Note: Electric Circus is in print physically & digitally. For current information on Common, visit him here.-QH]