It’s during the refrain of the title track on Common’s latest release, Universal Mind Control, that one hears Pharrell rap, “This is that new shit and it don’t feel the same”. It succinctly captures the feeling of the album as a whole, however euphemistically. To say the album is new and different is an understatement. Lyrically, Universal Mind Control is a departure from the involved, conscience-provoking rap Common has built his name and reputation around. Instead, braggadocio lyrics fill vacuous voids. Musically, it abandons the jazz-laden hip-hop Kanye West and J Dilla routinely and poignantly shaped around him. Instead, he hires the Neptunes’ saccharine pop beats.
What would ordinarily be lost as a mediocre track on any other Common album floats to the top here because “Gladiator”, for the most part, does not follow the above fateful trends. It captures Common in his lyrical element, which requires that the weight of the world is upon the protagonist’s soldiers, and that he is a pariah. This unleashes social frictions that Common can aptly describe:
Had dreams of breakin’ Mike Vick out of jail
Took the underground rail to the NFL
I rebel in YSL, here to leave a trail like Nelson Mandel
A horn hook spliced into the verses alludes to the Wu-Tang’s “Gravel Pit”, if however coincidentally. A harmonic piano interlude underneath each chorus counters a heavy beat and scorching keys during the verse.
“Make My Day” is undeniably the catchiest track on the album, thanks to a blithe hook by Cee-Lo. Along with Mr. DJ’s production—gamboling syncopated electronic beats—this bestows an obvious Gnarls Barkley sound on the song. The problem with those qualities is that the tune thus revolves around higher-pitched motifs. The only thing balancing the track is a swinging but thin bass line. A rapper like Big Boi would be a great equalizer for this track with his deep rolling baritone flow. But alas, Common is at the helm, and his center-pitched rhymes get lost in the track.
Another uncharacteristic move by Common is the raunchy strip club track, “Sex 4 Sugar”. Though it does parallel Common’s continuing efforts at being a ladies man, the track would be more at home on a Ludacris album. Applying Pharrell’s indie acquisition Chester French, “What a World” features their hyper-produced vocals and dance-punk sound. And that’s mostly it. They dominate the track, suffocating any potential hip-hop that could emanate from it.
The only track with any Kanye input is “Punch Drunk Love”. It’s heavy on the swagger, but light on substance, along the lines of “Sex 4 Sugar”. However, there are melodic intervals and motifs (not unlike “It’s Your World”) that evoke the past production of Kanye and Dilla.
Throughout the rest of the album an alchemical electro beat dominates. It’s precisely the type of production Ashlee Simpson or Madonna employ when they’re looking to assert themselves as pop stars, and it suits that task perfectly. When married with a lyrically strong rapper whose beats are almost always at a slower tempo, though, the relationship sours.
All this begs the question: Why? Common’s last two releases—2005’s Be and 2007’s Finding Forever—were unquestionably his most commercially successful, and worked to inexorably attached him to Kanye’s rising star. At the same time they were some of his most vibrant work since 1994’s Resurrection. Why would Common relinquish the style, both lyrical and musical, that generated previous critical and commercial success? He’s won some Grammies, respect from his peers as a lyricist, top spots on the sales and Billboard charts, and is successfully using all that to market himself to PETA and Gap. It seems the only thing his has to lose at this point is his dignity.
The album’s title suggests aspirations of scope, something Common is clearly striving for (note two major motion picture acting performances in the past two years, Smokin’ Aces and American Gangster). And who knows the ramifications on one’s ego of spending so much time with Kanye? But regardless of the motive,the result is clear: Pharrell and his Neptunes exert a svengali-like control over the record helping Common release his most contrived and banal album to date.