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Common

Electric Circus (MCA)

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"Hip-hop is changing/Y'all want me to stay the same?" asks our host, somewhere in the midst of a startling three-ring spectacle featuring everyone from Erykah Badu and the Roots' "?uestlove" to Prince and Stereolab's Laetitia Sadier. A similarly accomplished troupe also graced Common's last outing, 2000's Like Water for Chocolate, which recast the Chicago rapper as a member of the East Coast neosoul vanguard. But Electric Circus's neopsychedelia flips Like Water's masterful soul-jazz inside out and back again, as if Common wants to expose the style's hard bones and pulsing guts as well as its beautiful skin.

But unlike the Roots, whose brilliant new Phrenology never shies from lyrical "Complexity," Common still strives to honor his name in his raps. So from "a fly love song" like "Come Close" to an amoral depiction of "The Hustle" to a search for "Heaven Somewhere" that never loses its faith, this astounding breakthrough sees Common answering the rhetorical question posed above with both a nod and a head shake, making a full circle as he goes.

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