Today in Hip-Hop History: December 10th, 2002
Electric Circus by Common
Today in Hip-Hop History marks the 13-year anniversary of Common‘s fifth and last studio album for MCA, Electric Circus. Most of the recording for this album was at the Electric Lady, Jimi Hendrix‘s studio built in Manhattan. A large collective of well-known artists gathered to create this album. This included the likes of heavily named producers such as The Roots’ Questlove and James Poyser, to J Dilla, The Neptunes, and Karriem Riggins, to forefront artists like Erykah Badu and Mary J. Blige. With an all-star team made, Electric Circus functions as a funk-infused, soulful adventure through hip-hop culture. Electric Circus’ erratic and explorative nature is an artist’s adventure to see how far they could push music. Regardless of artistic success and positive acclaim, Electric Circus slept into the number 47 spot on US Billboard’s top 200 chart.
Misconstrued, the album was met with split reviews. “Producers James Poyser, Jay Dee, the Roots’ Questlove and the Neptunes freak the beats in all sorts of unexpected directions,” reads Kathryn Mcguire of Rolling Stone, giving the album a three out of five stars. Pitchfork also gave it a 6.5 out of 10, explaining that “Com comes off as alternately uncomfortable and downright lazy, half-speaking– or worse,singing— new-age revelations to the masses.” While reasonable arguments were made for the album’s pitfalls, many critics saw a different view when Electric Circus was in the limelight. “Common, once a lighthearted trickster, is a strident Black Power crusader. Although he can be self-righteous, scattered, and grim, a team of truly youthful-minded producers is there to color the gray,” says Neil Drumming of Entertainment Weekly. Realizing how important the album actually is, Questlove cites how you have to dig deeper to understand its significance saying “to understand that record is to understand the history of what Electric Lady Studios was to this whole Soulquarian unit. We started off in the spring of ’96 and that’s where we created Things Fall Apart for The Roots, D’Angelo‘s Voodoo, Erykah’s Mama’s Gun, Common’s Like Water for Chocolate, the Black Star record, Mos Def‘s record, Bilal‘s record, Musiq‘s album… Pretty much the left of center of hip-hop was using that place as much more than a studio. That place was like a clubhouse: you’d [go] even if you didn’t have a session, just hopin’ somethin’ would come up.”
It’s possible that Electric Circus was far ahead of its time, as its influences are seen far and wide with artists like Flying Lotus and Monte Booker resembling the aesthetic the album accomplished. Whatever the case may be, Electric Circus was unexpected and misunderstood at the time, making Common’s last album with MCA an album unfortunately slept on.