[review]Released just before the end of 2002, Common’s eclectic, vibrant Electric Circus was the MC staking a claim to pull rap in a bold new direction during a particularly formless era. The early 2000s were post-East v. West Coast turf war and pre-southern takeover, and out of that power vacuum artists like Common and The Roots (their classic Phrenology released just a few weeks earlier) planted their flag to make hip-hop into a kind of progressive genre jumbled through their Soulquarian movement. It didn’t quite coalesce, but the fruits of their labour are still captivating and the collection of talent, including D’Angelo, Q-Tip, and Erykah Badu, brought a bold new flavor to hip-hop and R&B.
Coming off the stellar, but more traditional Like Water for Chocolate, Electric Circus was largely met with a mix of intrigued befuddlement and pearl-clutching from critics, many who had trouble finding the entry-point into Common’s maze of psychedelic rock, neo-soul, and conscious hip-hop. The Los Angeles Times dubbed it “a messy hodgepodge of demo-quality experimentation in musical styles,” while Pitchfork (who gave the original a 6.5 and the 2017 vinyl reissue an 8.4) initially said the record “resonates with a lava lamp glow that’s a lot more hip-pie than hip-hop.”
While most critics in The States have come to recognize the importance of Electric Circus retroactively, the U.K. reception was warmer from the outset. Mojo, Q, and The Guardian in particular heaped praise on Common for expanding the horizons of hip-hop. Mainstream American rap was gradually getting stranger, with artists like Missy Elliott, Eminem, and OutKast surging, but there wasn’t a ton of depth outside of those pockets, and certainly little as musically rich as what Common crafted with the help of figures like J Dilla, The Neptunes, and Roots members James Poyser and ?uestlove.
The presence of Jimi Hendrix hangs over the record, both on the sprawling homage “Jimi Was a Rock Star” and also in more subtler corners of Electric Circus too. The vocal harmony, in which Common’s lines are pitch-shifted down and Badu sings a few octaves above, later became a staple of more avant-garde rap. “Jimi” is a lush, swirling kaleidoscope of a track that makes up for fairly ho-hum lyrics about the rock legend (“Jimi lives in a purple haze/In a psychedelic maze/Playing the streets like an instrument/Pulling strings wherever he went”) with a chugging instrumental built around hand drums, lingering guitars and stacks of vocal harmonies.
To be clear, Electric Circus isn’t a classic record in the same way as Like Water for Chocolate, or other essential Common projects like Resurrection or Be. “I Am Music” is a gaudy, jazzy misstep, and belongs on the soundtrack of Baz Luhrman’s The Great Gatsby or the cutting-room floor of OutKast’s Idlewild’, whilst “Star 69 (PS With Love)” is clunkier than the phone sex scene in Her despite a feature from Prince. The album’s continued importance is more in the barrier breaking sense, and while Common and the Soulquarians didn’t redefine the genre entirely, they did showcase another lane to take hip-hop that was radically different than the mainstream sensibility of their peers.
Young rappers today blending grittier rock and hip-hop have probably never even heard tracks like “Electric Wire Hustle Flower” and “I Got a Right Ta,” but their embrace of driving guitars, distortion, and shouted vocals was an authentic pivot that went beyond cringeworthy rap/rock, even if it still came off somewhat clumsy (partially due to Common’s semi-awkward straddling of conscious subject matter and traditional rap fodder). But even in the moments where the tracks feel too effortful there’s a broader awareness of the importance of challenging the norm.
“Hip-hop is changing, y’all want me to stay the same?” Common asks on “I Got a Right Ta.”
Lyrically, while Common blended into his dayglo surroundings in certain sections, he also continued to showcase a gift and passion for narrative that fit this more experimental sonic context. “Between Me, You & Liberation” plays like a predecessor to Kendrick Lamar’s unforgettable “Sing About Me,” in which Common recalls three heart-wrenching stories and the path that those figures took to find peace. The opening and closing verses, about a woman molested by her father as a child and an old friend of Common’s grappling with homosexuality, feel a bit reductive for 2017, but they were major signs of cultural progress in an era where homophobic slurs and misogyny went largely unchallenged.
Electric Circus is consistently bold, save for the pedestrian rap&B single “Come Close,” and it occasionally loses its footing and drifts into the kind of boundless astral field that made it a head-scratcher for many critics and fans around its release. But when Common manages to marry his earlier style with his bold new direction, the record soars.
“Where bullets and lies both spray together/My mind scream like Al Green ‘Let’s Stay Together’/How could a n***a be so scared of change/That’s what you hustle for, for the currency exchange” he says on “New Wave.” In that moment, and in a handful of other places on the album, Common’s progressive musical palette and all-world lyricism reach a kind of planetary alignment that makes it hard to believe the Soulquarians didn’t shift the whole trajectory of hip-hop for good.
Still, their movement broadened the boundaries of rap, and even if Electric Circus was far from a commercial success (it debuted at No. 47 on the Billboard 200), it stands as a bold attempt at a paradigm shift and a blueprint for dozens of rappers and singers to buck conventions and blend genres like paint colors.
Words by Grant Rindner. You can follow Grant on Twitter, here.