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.

Ludacris -- Theater of the Mind

Theater of the Mind

3/5 stars

Ludacris holds his own with some of the biggest names in rap.

Cons: His style is more suitable for singles than albums.

Bottom Line: If Ludacris wants to know why he isn't considered
a great rapper, Theater of the Mind is a good place to start.

Recommended Tracks:

Wish You Would

Do It for Hip-Hop

Over five albums and countless guest appearances, Ludacris reveled in being Ludacris. Never taking himself too seriously, he recounted a life of endless money, women and parties. He became the rapper every singer went to for hit features.

And while money and fame came easy, he found respect harder to come by. His new album Theatre of the Mind attempts to shape his legacy: "I'll be going down in rap as the MVP." He's following the lead of Jay-Z and Lil' Wayne -- if he keeps saying he's the best long enough, people might start believing him.

As a crowd-moving MC, he takes a back seat to no one. Not only is he funny and charismatic, but he can flow over almost any type of beat. He more than holds his own with two of today's biggest rappers -- T.I. ("Wish You Would") and Wayne ("Last of a Dying Breed") -- and two unquestioned legends -- Jay and Nas ("Do it for Hip-Hop").

But there's a difference between impressive on a track and on an album. That's why he has a feature on every full-length track save one. Like T-Pain, another hit-making mercenary, his albums tend to sound more like a collection of singles. His habit of using generic punch-lines to fill space ("So many acres that my crib look like Bermuda / So many diamonds my safe look like Kay Jewelers") doesn't help.

There are enough sure-fits hits, from the Jamaican-tinged "What Them Girls Like" to an ode to alcohol goggles on "One More Drink" and a Jamie Foxx-duet on "Contagious", that Ludacris will continue his streak of platinum albums. But the social commentary he began to showcase on "Runaway Love" is largely absent, as is any attempt to add depth to his musical persona.

Ludacris wants to know why he's not considered a great rapper. Theater of the Mind answers his question: rarely is so much talent used to say so little.