Common, "Universal Mind Control"

December 2, 2008


Although he's carved out one of the most artistically challenging, emotionally uplifting and longest-lived careers in hip-hop, South Side native Lonnie Rashid Lynn has long been frustrated by two factors: the shortsighted naysayers who stereotype him as a preachy hippie, backpack rapper or what he calls "the socially conscious love artist," and the fact that he's only earned a fraction of the filthy lucre reaped by lesser talents peddling gangsta nihilism. Because his message has been so inspiring, it's been easy to overlook his naked ambition. But it's always been there, staring out at us from the Gap ads and between the lines of the corporate promotions for Microsoft.

Sadly, this is the Common that dominates on his eighth album, which arrives in stores on Dec. 9.

Originally entitled "Invincible Summer," the disc was scheduled for release last June but reportedly delayed by obligations in Common's acting career. (Past credits include "American Gangster" and it's rumored that he'll play the Green Lantern in a Justice League film planned for 2011.) "I created this music for the summer time, it's about feeling good," the rapper told Billboard. He added, "This is the type of music I felt was missing from my body of work"--which is to say, lighthearted party jams unconcerned with making a lyrical impact or stretching artistic boundaries.

Sixteen years after his 1992 debut, "Can I Borrow a Dollar?," Common certainly is entitled to kick back and have fun. The problem with "Universal Mind Control" is that there's way too much transparent pandering and very little reason to actually celebrate.

As superstar producers the Neptunes deliver some of their weakest, most clichéd and most phoned-in tracks ever--heavy on the generic techno thumps, synth burbles and played-out vocoder backing vocals--one of hip-hop's most accomplished freestylers drops one leaden rap after another, most of them about sex, although there are also a couple of uncharacteristic "ain't I great" boast-fests via "Gladiator" and "What a World."

On "Make My Day," Cee-Lo Green of Gnarls Barkley croons on the choruses as Common lusts after a girl at a July 4th barbecue ("I'd love to be your Sonny, girl/You can be my Cher/It's Independence Day/And freedom's in the air"). In "Sex 4 Sugar," the rapper can barely contain his desires at a picnic ("You can call me Smokey, I'll be the bear/The smell of sexy is all in the air"). And on "Punch Drunk Love," as his protégé Kanye West goads him on, the 36-year old artist imitates the horny, double-entendre-obsessed teens in "Superbad" ("I knocked and I knocked, girl, can I come inside?/I feel like it's home when I'm in between your thighs").

The only time Common sounds like Common is on "Changes," which he said he envisions as "a great inaugural song for Barack Obama." And indeed it would be, though its placement on this album is like building a cathedral in the middle of the Las Vegas Strip, or maybe opening a brothel in between a monastery and a convent.

Common has made wrong turns before, though they often could be applauded: The jazz and psychedelic rock experiments of "Electric Circus" (2002) were a commercial disaster but an artistic triumph. And his canon has never been as narrow or as goodie-goodie as some claim: He's gotten dirty, sexy, boastful and thuggish plenty of times, though usually with the justification that he was portraying a character in one of his epic story songs. "Universal Mind Control" is a misstep of a whole different order, with nine out of ten tracks featuring the artist playing the obnoxious, drunken uncle who ruins the party by donning the lampshade, upending the punch bowl and pinching the rear of every girl in the room. Let's hope he really regrets it in the morning.