Hello party people! Flak here, fresh out-tha-gate with my first review here on BTH.
This week in review, I'll be reviewing the hip hop album Universal Mind Control, by one of my favorite Chicago (The Chi if you're nasty) MC's, Common. But first, let me introduce you to the background of this strapping young fellow.
As I said, Lonnie Rashid Lynn, Jr., or Common as you more readily know him, hails from Chicago, Illinois. Since 1992, hes been coming at us with an onslaught of real-talk verses and flows. For years, he's made many a cameo on the hip hop scenes with J. Dilla, Big Pun and the Terror Squad, Pete Rock, Masta Ace and many more. Common is also a part of the hip hop/ R&B supergroup, the Soulquarians. Apart from music, Common has broken into the acting territory, which normally I would see as quite idiotic for most rappers. But a few (Outkast, T.I., Mos Def) have made the cut, and were spared from being deleted from my library permanently. Common played himself in the movie Brown Sugar, and Dave Chappelle's Block Party (which is an amazing film by the way). But his acting career took flight in the movie Smokin' Aces, in which he plays Sir Ivory, Buddy 'Aces' Israel's bodyguard/hitman.
Later on he would act in American Gangster beside my twin brother Denzel Washington. He also featured prominent roles in the movies Street Kings, Wanted, and the one I'm waiting for, Terminator 4. (Side note: Hes also rumored to be playing the Green Lantern in the upcoming Justice League of America movie, slated for a 2011 release.)
Anywho, I digress. Common has been a busy boy since the early 90's, and has just released his 8th studio album on December 9th, entitled Universal Mind Control. From the moment the sexy-sounding french lady did her introduction of the album and the beat dropped, the first thing I thought (besides to involuntarily dance) was "Afrika Bambaataa has returned!" Which should normally make me upset seeing that Bambaataa can't be recreated, but Common showed respect to Planet Rock. What I also noticed was how short the album is, clocking in at only 38 minutes. But I think what Common wanted to accomplish was the 'short but sweet' method. Perhaps he was letting us know that he wasn't going soft, just because he did a few movies (Although I've read that the release was pushed back due to him filming on T4). Smart move sir.
If I were to point out a theme to this album, it would be a night in the life of Common, hanging with the ladies. But not in the generic way that most of us are used to. He puts the women on an equal level as him, and just wants to have a good time just like they do. Sure hes got style and swagger, but when you're Common, how could you not? Second, he gives multiple shout-outs to his one true love, hip hop. I see this as a trend to Chi Town artists, and I believe others should take notice and follow suit. Third, and probably most important in the growing hip hop "trends" is the inclusion of politics. The song Changes, talks on the subject of the election, supporting Barack Obama, and the American youth succeeding in the years to come.
Now its time for the skinny of the album. See, for rap and hip hop, its harder to give credit in the same way as other music. I've developed the BaRF method of breakdowns. This stands for Beats, Rhymes, and Featurettes. Yes I know that the acronym doesn't make sense, but then it wouldn't spell barf, and it wouldn't be as cool. Shush, enjoy it.
The production of this album was top notch, period. It was produced by The Neptunes (you know Pharrell Williams and his crew), and Mr. DJ, who has also worked with the likes of Outkast, Dungeon Family, Lenny Kravitz, and Mos Def. Like I said before, the thing that hit me in the head first, was the way the intro song Universal Mind Control sounded like Bambaataa. Although that beat was what most people consider a traditional beat, we move right along two tracks later to Make My Day, which takes more of a playful and lighter tone to the groovy love song. Sex 4 Suga is more of a raw beat, that sounds...well sounds like what sugar and sex might sound like. The last song on the album, Everywhere reminded me of a space age J-pop tune...but this was more interesting than annoying. But I would have to say that the best produced song on the album was Announcement, one of the singles off of this album. I just felt like it was the most 'hip hop' of the selections. Was it the live guitar instrumentals? 80's sound effects? Funky girl in the background? Or the raw drum beat? I can't put my finger on it, but it was beautiful.
Don't get me wrong, this album is amazing, but the lyrics did leave me yearning for something to be desired. Common talks about women, himself, the club, sex...you know, the usual. He is also a great MC in general, and can link his rhymes together well, rhyming 8 or more bars in many cases, but I feel like the subject matter would have gotten this album a better score. Now Common, don't be mad at me, but couldn't you have brought a little more political talk to this album? You spend all this time campaigning on other albums and mixtapes for it, and I loved where you were going. But I suppose that may have been overkill to continue that on this album....that, or I just really want The Fugees to get back together. Probably the latter, but still good job overall.
There weren't many people who made a guest appearance, but their presence was strong enough for a pretty decent score. First up we have Pharrell Williams, who helped produce the album. He only says a few worlds in the intro song, but its simple and to the point. It got me in the hyped up mood to make alternate shoulder movements in a rhythmic manner. Next up would be Mr. Kanye West, whom I am on bad terms with, considering the atrocity he delivered with his latest album, 808's and Heartbreak. But he's still a strong Chi Town native, so I'll allow it this one time. But I'm keeping an eye on you Kanye. On the song Make My Day, Cee Lo of the Goodie Mob (or maybe Gnarls Barkley is more recognizable for you) sings the lovely hook. He's a strange ass MC, but he has held it down on the top 20 list of my favorite MC's. At any rate, this section I originally wanted to score it a 7, but because Common pulled at my heart strings by adding his daughter in the track Changes, I bumped it up a level.
Notable mentions go out to Muhsinah, Chester French, and Martina Topley-Bird. But to be frank, I don't know shit about them.
To wrap it up, I will highly suggest that you pick up this album. For the old fans, Common Sense still has just that. To the new listeners, it's a good place to start in his albums, because its the most listener friendly, with the robust diversity of beat types. I for one don't think that hip hop is dead per say, but it's definitely in critical condition. I feel like we will have a lot more "real" MC's either returning or coming new to the scene, due to the huge response of rappers and MC's we saw when Obama was running his campaign. I mean cmon, a presidential mixtape? When have you ever seen some shit like that? This album may not be on the same level (or even same direction) as the Fugees, but I do still think its one for the collection.
Until next week kids, Flak out.