Lowest Common Denominator

commonkanye Lowest Common DenominatorCommon started his rap career as a Midwestern representative of all that made mid-’90s indie hip-hop so great. Soul- and funk-driven beats were matched by confessional, verbose rhymes that eschewed rims and strippers for more pressing, mature, and human concerns. He has spent the last decade slowly augmenting that image, adding a dash of hippie here, a smattering of black nationalist there, and musically rolling through soul’s many incarnations, from psychedelic to ’80s boogie.

What he managed to carve out was a role as a feel-good, socially conscious, new age rapper. His sensitivity occasionally verged on wussified, but ever-present was a realist soberness, concern for the squalor, troubled times, and hard lives of America’s black underclass.

Common started his rap career as a Midwestern representative of all that made mid-’90s indie hip-hop so great. Soul- and funk-driven beats were matched by confessional, verbose rhymes that eschewed rims and strippers for more pressing, mature, and human concerns. He has spent the last decade slowly augmenting that image, adding a dash of hippie here, a smattering of black nationalist there, and musically rolling through soul’s many incarnations, from psychedelic to ’80s boogie.

 

What he managed to carve out was a role as a feel-good, socially conscious, new age rapper. His sensitivity occasionally verged on wussified, but ever-present was a realist soberness, concern for the squalor, troubled times, and hard lives of America’s black underclass.

His latest, Universal Mind Control, out this week, has dropped the positivity in favor of a collection of bubbly, floor-filling beat surrenders revolving mostly around sexual conquest and macho posturing. Originally scheduled for release this past June, the album was pushed because of Common’s acting obligations. While his dramatic roles thus far have been commendable (his Gap commercial notwithstanding), they’ve clearly sapped his will to make his music anything but dippy fun. It’s not just weird to stop caring about struggle, challenge, resistance, and people, and focus on partying, sex, and decadence at this particular moment. It’s actually kind of obscene. And it’s maybe even stranger that this material was meant as a summer album, since this summer wasn’t exactly without anxiety over the future of the country.

The first line Common drops is “This is / that automatic,” and it’s an appropriate intro to the title track, which blandly apes ’80s electro (Newcleus, Afrika Bambaataa) from the vocoded chorus to the Kraftwerk-ish central synth line. Common’s development has always sounded like a half-understood journey through a friend’s really great record collection (say, ?uestlove’s?), jumping from Sly & the Family Stone to Gil Scott Heron without necessarily digesting the substance so much as the style. Now it’s the icy realms of black futurist electro, except in place of extra-terrestrial apocalypse, we get lame come-ons and brags that feel like put-ons.

Kanye West provided beats for most of the tracks on Common’s last two albums, 2005’s Be and 2007’s Finding Forever, and despite his recent turn to Autotuned R&B, Mr. West actually filled those albums with raw, propulsive soul and funk sounds. Pharrell Williams and The Neptunes are at the helm for seven out of the 10 songs here (with contributions from Mr. DJ and Mr. West too), and the result is decidedly less organic, with those needed touches of soul, funk, and boogie edged out by techy, minimal beats.

Along with the ill-fitting backing, Common ranges over a bunch of genre raps he’s obviously uncomfortable with, if not actually just bad at. From the bogus beefy boasts of horn-led “Gladiator” to the boudoir blech of “Punch Drunk Love” (alongside Mr. West), Common feels out of his element playing the tough guy or the jaded, sex-crazed player. When Cee-Lo shows up, on “Make My Day,” the fickleness of Common’s project is put into relief. Cee-Lo has been remarkably consistent in his approach and the employment of his vocal and lyrical force, through Goodie Mob to his solo career and through Gnarls Barkley. And even here, he manages a bright, gospel-tinged soul strut even as a guest star, while still masking darker emotional depth within his breezy smiling lines.

Wastes of time include the achingly flaccid electro-funk of “Sex 4 Sugar,” which nods to the Jungle Brothers as it rips the group off, poorly, and the Biggie-ish “Announcement,” where Common rhymes about his endorsement deals, explaining “Now we can push more whips / than slavery.” Oof. Later he addresses being labeled “a philosopher” by “broads” and responds “yeah, I philosophize on top of ya!” Other tracks offer similar kind of karaoke flows (Sugar Hill Gang on “What a World”).

The tracks that feel most like Common’s past are the forgettable “Inhale” and, just before it, the drippy “Changes,” which is also the only song addressing Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, and was obviously, awkwardly written before his victory (odd for such a vocal supporter of the president-elect, and reportedly one of Obama’s favorite artists). Yet vague assertions like “Life is in front of you / no need to look back again / victory can be claimed / while you’re still battlin’ ” seem like a kind of “just playin’, I’m really not a club-hopping jerk” mea culpa for the lazy brainlessness of the rest of the album, and are too little, too late. By the time we’ve reached the end of Universal Mind Control it literally feels like someone else’s album. “Everywhere,” a collaboration with Brit songstress Martina Topley-Bird, is a fast, synthy club track, and would actually sound much better if you just took out Common’s lame couple of verses.