Thursday, December 18, 2008

Common -- Universal Mind Control

Rating: 2/5 stars

Pro: Some of the liveliest music of his career.

Con: Very little musical chemistry between Common and the Neptunes.

Bottom Line: Common finds out making club music is harder than he thought.

Recommended Tracks:

Make My Day

What A World

The pairing of Common and the Neptunes, two hip-hop legends in need of a creative spark, was an intriguing idea. Common's collaborations with label-boss Kanye West reached a dead-end with 2007's lackluster Finding Forever; the Neptunes, once the genre's premier hit-makers, haven't had commercial success in over two years.

There are only two problems with Universal Mind Control, Common's new Neptunes-produced album: their club-centric production style doesn't mesh with his lyric-heavy rapping while his style of rapping isn't suited for their futuristic-sounding party records.

Since club music revolves around beats and not lyrics, one of rap's premier lyricists is essentially wasted. There's no way to pay attention to what Common is saying with the cacophony of a Neptunes beat -- exotic drums and spacey sound effects -- overwhelming him.

On the other hand, those loud cranked-up beats need charismatic rappers with commanding vocal presences to harness them: see the Neptunes' success with Jay-Z and Busta Rhymes. Just because a song has simple subject matter doesn't mean it's easy to rap over; witty and clever lines can be as hard to write as deep and contemplative ones. Universal Mind Control is full of clunkers like "broads say you are a philosopher / Yea, yea, I'll philosophy on top of ya."

The only song Common makes his own is "What A World" where he adopts a Sugarhill Gang flow ("A little boy from Chicago had dreams to be a star / And make a way, and get some pay, and drive a fancy car") to tell a 3rd person account of his career.

The album's ultimate success will depend on the reaction to the Neptunes mix of electronic and European club music. For a rapper as accomplished as Common, it's the rarest of failures: he'll be taking the blame for something not really his.

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