Album: Common, Universal Mind Control (Island)

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The Independent Culture

Apart from his recent shift into movies, Common seems to be approaching his hip-hop career in a perversely roundabout manner

He's steadily building a reputation as a psychedelically inclined philosophical liberal when all about him were sucking up the gangsta dollar, before finding his entrée into impolite society via his chum Kanye West, and finally essaying a few more directly erotic raps here in tracks such as "Punch Drunk Love" and "Sex 4 Suga".

It's not a role the naturally polite rhymer inhabits all that comfortably – well, you try making whoopee with lines like "Girl you can touch my forces of nature/ I'm just tryin' to motivate ya" – so it's a relief when, about halfway through the album, Common settles into his more familiar conscious mode, asserting his creative principles in tracks like "Gladiator" and "Changes". "I got a purpose why I MC/ Inspire the young world to be greater than me," he explains in the latter: "I fall awake and I dream a song/ So those little shorties will sing along." It's a typically modest attitude, expressed with greater subtlety than most "save the children" anthems – and the setting is likewise more intriguing than most, a return to the psychedelic hip-hop soul style of Common's cosmic period, its shifting arrangement recalling such as the Fifth Dimension, Curtis Mayfield and Rotary Connection.

That track and the galloping, euphoric "Make Me Day", with its Cee-Lo Green hook, are produced by OutKast accomplice Mr DJ. For most of the album, however, Common has collaborated with The Neptunes to create a more techno-flavoured hip-hop style. The title track "UMC" employs hand percussion and rising synth figures as backdrop to the rapper's updated old-skool flow, a lesson in how to boast without disrespecting others. On "Inhale", the synths recall Stevie Wonder circa Innervisions – exactly right for a typical Common torrent of observations. "Everywhere" finds Martina Topley-Bird intoning the notion that "everywhere is somewhere" over a sultry, scudding electropop arrangement; and joined by retro-Eighties duo Chester French for "What a World", the result sounds uncannily close to a Ze Records electro-funk hip-hop groove of that decade.

All in all, it's something of a departure for the already stylistically well-travelled Common, developed almost accidentally with The Neptunes while he was waiting for West to finish 808s & Heartbreak. The two albums have turned out to be not that far apart musically, the kind of accidental convergence that could signal a major shift in hip-hop style. Best of all is the rumbustious "Gladiator": "They say he's The Radical, he don't fit the game/ A heart full of glory and a fist of pain... are you not entertained?" Yes, and then some.

Pick of the album:'Gladiator', 'Everywhere', 'Changes', 'Inhale', 'UMC'

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