10 Years Later: Reassessing Electric Circus

Electric Circus was supposed to start the revolution. It was supposed to synthesize sound(s). After Electric Circus dropped, everything was supposed to be different. Eccentric little brown kids that dug on Radiohead could rock with the mainstream, while the lesser-hued youth, who would later fall in love with Linkin Park/Jay-Z mashups, could ride shotgun. Universality in sound—rarely does this happen.

The revolution would have been televised—BET, MTV, VH1, whatever. Artists now considered to be of the subterranean variety would have become household names. While the previous generation could point to the Soulquarians, the next movement would have been led by the likes of Sa-Ra, J*Davey, and Georgia Anne Muldrow. I’ve never talked to Common about this, nor picked the brain of Questlove, but I’m fairly certain that I’m correct in my prognostications.

But this never happened.

The question is, “Why?”

“This ain't Like Water For Chocolate! This ain't real Hip-Hop!”

“Aye yo, son…what’s that on Com’s head?”

“Erykah ________ [insert reference to sexual mysticism here] and now Com’s lost his mind.”

I’ve always loved the, “This ain't real Hip-Hop” opinion. Because to most, Hip-Hop, or in this case rap, is something specific. And that “something” is rarely achieved on Electric Circus.

So, naturally, “Aquarius” or “Electric Wire Hustle Flower” would get scrutiny when compared to other urban albums of the early 2000s. The death certificate for those records was signed by the wail of an electric guitar. It didn’t matter that Lonnie spit some of his most aggressive bars, connecting hood sensibilities to Kurt Cobain. The people weren’t buying it, figuratively and literally. Hip-Hop is soul samples and 808s. Stay in your lane, homie.
Common feat. Bilal – Aquarius
Common – Electric Wire Hustle Flower
“The Hustle” and “Star *69 (PS With Love)” suffered the exact same fate. In other parts of 2002, rappers were flipping old Luther and Donald Byrd records; meanwhile Common was doing this electric synth thing that no one could wrap their head around. I guess that's what happens when you employ someone like Karriem Riggins. He's not gritty and he's certainly not Hip-Hop. Then there's the supposed “Detroit Player,” Jay Dee. After listening to Mama's Gun you could already tell that Erykah had dropped her unique brand of afrocentric chakras on the young Dill Withers. And after the infamous “What We Do” video, everybody should have known that Quest wasn't trying to get down with what was really hot in the streets. Long story short, this is what happens when you get those “other” type characters on your record. It disturbs the comfort level of the average listener. What the people wanted was some of that real, as found in the best solo rap performance of the year. Sarcasm and semi-shots aside, relative to that period of time, the music just doesn't make any sense. In the visceral words of Elzhi, “Get cha mind right n….”
Common – The Hustle
Common – Star 69 (PS With Love)
“Between Me, You & Liberation,” is an entirely different story. Now, don't forget, before the GAP commercials and movie scripts, he was Rashid from the South Side of Chicago. This is the same guy that penned “The Bitch In Yoo.” Have you ever had Minister Farrakhan step into one of your beefs? I didn't think so. That's the Com Sense, we knew. Then, all of a sudden he's articulating progressive critiques on homophobia and the sexual abuse of women, coupled with authentic moments of sensitivity in the face of pain. That’s not Hip-Hop. Hip-Hop is about the mishandling of pejoratives and disrespecting the entire gender of people that raised you. At the very least, it’s not about perceived “softness.” I think this is the point where we start blaming Erykah.
Common – Between Me, You and Liberation
Speaking of Miss Badu…

…the only place that “Jimi Was A Rock Star” took us was to the apex of Erykah slander. I’m not even going to try and defend this one.
Common – Jimi Was a Rock Star
Taking this all into consideration, on the opinion that Electric Circus is not a wholly authentic Hip-Hop album, I’d have to agree. There were elements of it, sure. But this isn’t that definably “real Hip-Hop” as found in the early 2000s.

Now, let's mix things up and play a fun time Hip-Hop activity!

God's Son. The Blueprint 2. Paid tha Cost 2 Be da Bo$$. Electric Circus. The Eminem Show. Better Dayz.

Ok, kids…which one doesn't fit with the others? Hint: It rhymes with Shelectric Shircus.

If you guessed Electric Circus, not only are you smarter than a 5th grader, but you recognize that this album was an odd concoction of genres, creating something wholly unfamiliar. (amiright?!)

And that’s just it. Think about the giant piano-playing elephant in the room post-Robert Glasper Grammy nomination. Black Radio is up for…R&B Album of the Year? That makes absolutely no sense. This is the issue facing every artist that decides to step outside of the theoretical box (especially of those categorized as “urban” | read: black). People just don't know what to do with it. The major difference between Black Radio and Electric Circus is that Rob dropped his album at a time when it was actually cool to be different.

Once you take Electric Circus outside of this (cliché) Hip-Hop framework, you get an entirely different album. Now we’re talking about a project that captured the rock/rap hybrid movement. We’re talking about a project that gave us the earliest stages of electronic soul. We’re talking about a project that redefined socially acceptable topics in Hip-Hop. Hell, even “Jimi Was A Rock Star” is defensible when removed from the shackles of contemporary Hip-Hop thought. We’re talking about a project so far ahead of its time that people are JUST starting to make the music it birthed. Whenever I hear someone praise Flying Lotus, Thundercat, Quadron, The Internet, Shafiq Husayn, Erykah post-Worldwide Underground (and like a million other artists) etc., I laugh, because, at least, part of their work has elements of what was done on the oft-criticized Electric Circus. There’s a reason that I’ve called The Roots (in this case, specifically executive producer Questlove) the Miles Davis of our modern generation. Sometimes, their vision is just beyond comprehension, only to be understood years after the fact.

I hope that somewhere in my rambling you were able to connect with what I’m saying. Electric Circus could have been the missing link in music. It could have redirected the entire trajectory of popular sound. This, I truly believe. Unfortunately, it came out too early and we simply weren’t ready. Its influence can be heard on some of the most critically-acclaimed, but underperforming projects of the present. Maybe not the result I would want, but progress nonetheless. All those involved with this album were of the mindset that music is just music, and accordingly you got something that was far beyond the parameters given to urban male artists of that era. Common displayed a courage unmatched by perhaps any other “rapper” I've seen to date. For that he will forever get my respect. Hopefully, today we’re starting to understand the genius of Electric Circus, ten years after the fact.

Written By: Paul Pennington

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5 Comments

  1. Love @royayersproject so much: 10 Years Later: Reassessing Electric Circus http://t.co/wVozCI4p

  2. I was a youth when this record dropped yo, It definitely blew my mind, I listened to it time and again without really understanding what was happening, yet I knew it was something familiar and new. Similar shit was going on at this time as well. You mentioned Questlove, I feel phrenology touched on some themes that were prevalent in EC. Cody Chestnut’s Headphone Masterpiece also contributed heavily and definitively to this sort of quasi relationship between rock and hip hop. And I can’t forget about N.E.R.D., but this is just some of the shit that was in my headphones yo. I guess what I’m proposing is that Common was not alone. EC was a hard shift compared to Com’s earlier jumpoffs, dude really switched shit up wit this. To me, it stood out as a sort of reference to black music of days past but without really making it relevant to the present day sounds. Black Radio is similar in the sense that it is reaching across genres, bridging gaps with the intention of eliminating those gaps: It claims Black Music as a singular (though not monolithic) record with inifinite grooves. The difference, is that Black Radio is meant to be accessible to the general public. EC was Common and crew saying “I’ma do what the fuck I want.” Prince did a lot of this type of shit too, took a lot of risks. And while it is important to take risks, it’s more important to be intentional and clear. Sometimes your risks can be confusing. I think EC would have be more impressive today if Common didn’t go the route of GAP and Coke commercials. It could have been a stepping stone. Instead Common appears to have treated this time in his artistic life as a blip, his decisions have rendered his own work insignificant. This is just y opinion. Peace yo, thanks for inspiring me this AM, hope my comment is not impeding.

    • Not impeding at all, that is what the comment section is for! Great feedback, and your perspective is appreciated.

  3. 10 Years Later: Reassessing Electric Circus http://t.co/5UMuzZEF

  4. “10 Years Later: Reassessing Electric Circus” (Written by @paulpennington) | http://t.co/5Rh5t3IK

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