In an amazing example of giving someone props while at the same time taking a massive shit on their career, Jay-Z once famously commented that, "Honestly, I wanna rap like Common... but I also wanna sell records."
And while he's certainly cultivated a nice following and parlayed that into a moderately successful break into the film industry (note: didn't say he was a good actor; just said he broke into the biz), that's got to just sting like the world's worst paper cut. So Common started wearing a lot of hats that looked like they came from my grandma's used crochet pile, and went after a more-diverse group of fans (let's call them "the Bonnaroo audience"). And he moved a few more units, but certainly not Billboard Top 25-style units.
Angst over Hova's big-up/dismissal, I suspect, has finally driven Common into the arms of everyone's favorite Skater Fag, Pharrell (okay, that was probably unfair to homosexuals and malicious in general, but it seems kind of appropriate, does it not?). I would say "the Neptunes," but until someone proves to me that Chad Hugo isn't more than just some Asian dude Pharrell pays to hang out and roll blunts, fuck that.
Universal Mind Control (UMC) is clearly Common's attempt to move some units finally, and I guess it might, on the strength of the Pharrell association, but it shouldn't. UMC is handily Common's worst album, as he trades his more-organic neo-soul sound for, well, largely subpar Neptunes tracks.
Jumping off with electro-hip-hop synthesizers, the opener and title track isn't anything revelatory, but it gives you the sense that maybe Pharrell is going to try something different, maybe use the MIDI/Casio sounds he's known for in an older-school context.
Not so much. Witness "Punch Drunk Love," which sounds like a rejected H-Town beat (that's right, as in "Let me lick you up and down" H-Town), "Gladiator," which inexplicably shifts from squelchy, modulated synths to a demure piano melody, and "What a World," which completely deads any hope I had that the two preppy white kids from Chester French (signed to Pharrell's Star Trak label) will be anything but annoying and horrible.
The production, handled almost exclusively by Pharrell, incorporates elements of electro, English grime and maybe even a snatch or two of go-go. But aside from the first single, "Announcement," very little of it pairs up well with Common's traditional, angular, slightly-clunky-but-still-on-the-beat flow. In fact, he goes several steps outside his lyrical comfort zone, trying to roll over the hip-hop shuffle of "Make My Day" and the double-time closer, "Everywhere."
And then there's "Sex 4 Sugar," which has already been blog-bludgeoned to death for its complete and total cornball awkwardness. Not only does Common butcher all his verses, but Pharrell ruins one of the better drum tracks on the album with a retarded synth melody.
As tired as I am of every MC between Chicago and Detroit rapping over a recycled Dilla beat (speaking of which, why doesn't anyone snatch up some of the tracks from his beat tape series? There are some KILLAS on it), I'd have much rather heard Common doing that than UMC.
Where's my copy of Like Water for Chocolate? I wanna hear that joint about his grandma gettin' jacked on the old-folks cruise again...