For years, Chicago-born MC Common (a.k.a. Lonnie Lynn) has been a standard-bearer for the Native Tongues' progressive style of hip-hop. During this time, he's been rightly celebrated for his intelligent lyrics and his rejection of hip-hop's rampant misogyny ("I'll never call you my bitch or even my boo," he promised his woman on the Grammy-nominated "The Light"), although his occasional incongruous bouts of homophobia have been disconcerting. His 2000 album Like Water for Chocolate was soulful and brilliant, and his new effort, Electric Circus, strives for an adventurousness rarely seen in mainstream hip-hop. You'd think that combination of talent and ambition would make for his best work yet.
Yeah, well, you'd think so.
It seems Common's got a newfound appreciation for classic rock and soul. With its Sgt. Pepper-ish cover art and Summer of Love song titles ("Aquarius," "Jimi Was a Rock Star," "Soul Power"), Circus is his attempt to incorporate that new infatuation into hip-hop. Unfortunately, Com has made the decision to embrace only the worst of the past, from psychedelia's aimless meanderings to metal's amelodic licks, and the result is, for the most part, a disjointed mess. The Prince rip-off "Star 69" -- with Ol' Dirty Mind himself on keys, tweaking the keyboard line from "Erotic City" -- gives way to the Neptunes-produced "I Got a Right Ta," which sounds like every other Neptunes-produced song you've heard over the past two years. The album devolves from odd to uncomfortable on "Jimi," which features Common's awkward crooning over fuzzed-out guitar and what sounds like your basic Berkeley drum circle. The eight-plus minutes are a psychedelic nightmare; all that's missing are some brown acid and the cast of Hair.
Circus isn't a total disaster. The jazz-tinged "I Am Music," featuring a Betty Boop-style vocal from Jill Scott, is an old-school standout, and "New Wave," with its back-and-forth mood shifts and a dreamy hook from Stereolab's Laetitia Sadier, shows that Common's ambitions can pay off. On "Between Me, You, and Liberation," a three-part meditation on emotional and spiritual release, the rapper ponders how to react when a childhood friend reveals he's gay: "How could I judge him?/Had to accept him if I truly loved him." Not, perhaps, the greatest of revelations, but it's a step forward for the man who spit "Homo's a no-no, so faggots stay solo," on 1994's "Heidi Hoe."
Common gets plenty of points for trying something new, although he seems to lose his way often on this album. That's the problem with experimentation: Sometimes it blows up in your face.