Common - Universal Mind Control

Posted December 9, 2008
Tags: Common,

Some people are going to hate Common’s new album, Universal Mind Control. It won’t matter...

Universal Mind Control Album Review

Some people are going to hate Common’s new album, Universal Mind Control. It won’t matter what I write. Nothing will convince them otherwise. How do you know if you’re one of these people? Just take this simple quiz: Do you still refer to Common as Common Sense? Do you use the phrase “real hip-hop” multiple times a day? While reading this, do you feel an intense urge to yell, “I was listening to Common before anyone else!” If you answered yes to any of these questions, you’d probably be better off just skipping Universal Mind Control entirely. But for the rest of you, I just might be able to convince you not to hate what is a deeply flawed but still enjoyable album.

First we need to understand why Common made Universal Mind Control (or at least it's my theory). The widespread acclaim for his last album Finding Forever should have been enough, but everywhere he went he heard the whispers: “He’s not a rapper, he’s a philosopher. He can’t go hard. He can’t make music for the club.” He pretended not to hear the criticism, but inside it ate him up, infuriated him, until he finally decided, “screw it, I’m making an album that’s nothing but club bangers and booty shakers.” So he went out and got a bunch of production from the Neptunes, threw in a couple guest features, and before he knew it, he had Universal Mind Control. Is it Common’s best album? Not even close. But he obviously didn’t take the album too seriously, and neither should you.

Let’s start with the title track Universal Mind Control. On the album the song begins with a cryptic introduction from a French woman, but seconds later the beat kicks in with a skittering, pumping, head-nodding madness that makes you forget everything but the rhythm, including ridiculous French intros. Lyrically, Common brings his typically stratospheric wordplay down to ground level, and while it may be simplistic, his minimalist approach is exactly what the beat calls for. (And for all you purists, Common’s never really made a track you could break dance to; now he has.) If you’re worried that Com’s completely abandoned his lyrical ways, may I direct your attention to Gladiator, a hard-jazz joint that could have found a place on Forever with lyrics like, “I’m a beast among boys, like Paul I’m revered.” (That’s an absurdly dope line if you get the Beastie Boy’s reference.) But it’s the song’s chorus that I’m most interested in; a “are you not entertained” chant that seems directly aimed at all the whisperers I mentioned above. Common’s made classic music, but some people still weren’t entertained. Fine, now he’s made Universal Mind Control. How about now? Are you entertained now?

I may be a Universal Mind Control defender, but I’m not deaf. While I admire Common’s musical mission, his execution leaves much to be desired. The biggest problem is that while the Neptunes’ beats all bang, their electronically heavy production style is a terrible match for Common’s innately intricate wordplay. By contrast, Kanye’s organic production on Forever was a perfect fit. Speaking of which, Mr. West jumps on board for Punch Drunk Love, a track that leaves Common sounding lost amongst the stripped down raunchiness of Punch Drunk, resorting to sometimes painfully bad lines like, “some call me daddy, I’m gonna put you to bed.” Common’s already proven he can do sexually charged jams like Go, but Punch Drunk is regrettable at best. I’d still rather listen to an hour of Punch Drunk than a minute of Sex 4 Sugar, a track that Ludacris would have killed, but Common fills with an awkward bravado that will undoubtedly produce cringes in long time fans. I’m going to pretend Sex 4 Sugar never happened, I suggest you do the same.

Not all of Universal Mind Control is so vagina-oriented. The end of the album veers towards more familiar territory for Common, including the requisite Obama anthem Changes and the experimentally pop-rock Everywhere, but in the end they’re drops of consciousness in an ocean of club-ready tracks. It’s not the album I wish Common made, but he’s under no obligation to only make what I want to hear. The man’s a legend, and that means he’s earned the right to make the music he wants to, even if that means stepping down from his lofty lyrical pedestal. So enjoy the peaks of Universal Mind Control, and ignore the valleys. His music’s done so much for our lives, it’s the least we can do for him.

DJBooth Rating - 3.5 Spins

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Posted December 9, 2008
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