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Southside rapper's ch-ch-ch-changes

Common - Universal Mind Control
(Geffen Records)
3 stars (out of 5 stars)
Reviewed: Dec. 26, 2008

Review by Tony Bonyata

Despite the delayed release of Chicago rapper Common's eighth album, Universal Mind Control, which was originally scheduled to drop on July 1st but got pushed back, in part, because of his acting work in the action film "Wanted" (also starring Morgan Freeman and Angelina Jolie) the attention surrounding it's December 9th release has been substantial.

That's due to the fact that this effort, like his 2002 album Electric Circus, strays from what is considered the standard brand of hip-hip (or at least Common's brand - which in the past has incorporated elements of both soul and jazz into the mix). Using the studio like a laboratory with fellow sound scientists such as the hip-producing collectives Soulquarians (led by The Roots' ?uestlove), The Neptunes (Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo) and even Prince, Electric Circus found Common experimenting and mixing hip-hop with both electronica and rock sensibilities like a mad chemist. The startling results left many fans of his earlier material, like his breakthrough 2000 album Like Water For Chocolate, nonplused or downright angry.

Three releases after Electric Circus, enter Universal Mind Control, an album that finds Common once again working with The Neptunes, along with longtime Southside Chicago collaborator Kanye West and the results, not surprisingly, lean towards electronica and techno-fueled hip-hop. This all works extremely well on a few numbers, such as the cold Kraftwerkian-electro shock of the opening title track, the club-hopping "Sex 4 Sugar" and the charging "Gladiator," where Common proclaims he's "the rap Ziggy Stardust," alluding to his willingness to incite drastic change as David Bowie did in the early '70s with his Ziggy alter-ego. And speaking of change, the 36 year-old rapper / actor pays tribute to another one of his Southside neighbors, Barack Obama, on the more soulful number "Change."

The highlight of the record is the upbeat, soul-drenched "Make My Day," featuring the irresistible vocals of Gnarls Barkley's Cee-Lo. Surprisingly, the low point turns out to be the duet with Kanye West on the sexed-up "Punch Drunk Love," which not only finds West proclaiming "I already know I'm too fly" ("fly"?! I thought this dated term went out in the '90s), but, even worse, utilizes the dreaded Auto-Tune vocoder, which Cher made famous with her 1998 hit "Believe" and has now infiltrated its way into major rap artist's work like Lil' Wayne, Akon and Kayne West. Thankfully this is the only track that Common uses this embarrassingly cheesy effect on.

Ultimately, though, Universal Mind Control proves that Common - like our nation's choice of new leadership - is willing to embrace and move forward with change.

Related articles:

Voodoo Music Experience 2007 - Festival review, New Orleans, LA Oct. 2007
Like Water for Chocolate - Album review

Watch Common - "Universal Mind Control"

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