Does anyone want to party with Common? Because he’s having a throw-down, with tons of booze, babes, and dance music, and he wants us all to come. To prove that he’s for real, he even invited that young whippersnapper Pharrell, whose slinky keyboard-based beats are all the rage with the kids these days. Don’t believe what you may have heard about the old Common—you know, the introspective, earnest nerd who way back in 1994 penned a trenchant critique of hip-hop’s moral backsliding (“I Used to Love H.E.R.”), who ventured nobly, if awkwardly, into the depths of bohemian neo-soul with 2002’s Electric Circus and who emerged mid-decade boasting a stirringly successful symbiosis with Kanye West on 2005’s Be and last year’s Finding Forever. No, forget all that. Common is now apparently just another rapper who sees music as a conduit to getting drunk and getting laid—think Jim Jones, but not quite as dumb.
The presence of the Neptunes, who may have been onto some cutting-edge circuitry a few years ago but whose mojo nowadays mostly goes limp when working with anyone other than the Thornton brothers, should be a sign that Common’s new album, Universal Mind Control, is a midlife crisis of the most embarrassing kind. Common approaching the scene with Pharrell in tow is like your dad coming home wearing a pair of Abercrombie cargo pants and asking, “How do I look?” The rapper is way out of his element here, and where he used to be known for weaving heartfelt narratives, he now will be known for this: “I don’t mind being behind/‘Cause I’m going to touch you where the sun don’t shine,” a representative line from his new album’s idiotic tour-de-force “Sex 4 Suga.”
Before its release date was pushed from July to December, Universal Mind Control was titled Invincible Summer, and though it’s possible the album’s vapid club excursions would be more palatable during the warmer months, that line of reasoning evidences way more generosity than Common deserves. The starkly pulsating title track, which opens the album, sets a script that brooks only a few deviations. Twittering dance beats, keyboard flourishes, and Pharrell-sung choruses are the rules for nearly every song here. Likewise, Common’s get-this-party-started tone is aggressive and joyless, not unlike the workmanlike exclamations of a porn actor. For the most part, listening to this album is like being trapped in a dance workout video from hell.
There are a few bright spots. “Gladiator” is the one instance where Common’s aggression fits the form; buoyed by a sick concoction of rock-piano samples, squawking horns, and thunderous drums, the track is a psychedelic battle rap more appropriate to Black Milk’s recent LP Tronic, but it sticks out more grandly on Universal Mind Control. OutKast’s production guru Mr. DJ spells the Neptunes three times on the album, and each is a relative success, especially the vaguely trip-hop “Everywhere,” which features Martina Topley-Bird and is more a vehicle for its guest star than Common, whose only verse appears over a minute into the song.
What remains admirable about Common’s long career is that he’s been fearless about dramatically changing his aesthetic profile. This is a guy who came back, and came back strong, from Electric Circus. Although Universal Mind Control represents a serious step backward from the successes of his recent projects with Kanye, it would be remiss to say the album is the death knell for Common’s career or that he has fallen off in any significant way. The guy has been acting a lot lately, after all. Let’s just hope this is a role Common retires after realizing he’s not going to get very far in it.