When it comes to dance-ready raps, Common’s catalog traditionally gets bounced at the club door. His previous two masterful efforts—2005’s Be and 2007’s Finding Forever—were both beefed up with ghetto PSAs, atop Kanye West’s organic instrumentation, resulting in bobbing domes yet rarely moving feet. Looking to gain access to the VIP section, Common enlists The Neptunes’ services to energize his eighth LP, Universal Mind Control.
Promptly starting the party, Common spaces out to futuristic synths on the lively title track, a frantic, genre-blurring adrenaline rush reminiscent of Afrika Bambaataa’s “Planet Rock.” The Zulu Nation founder isn’t the only old head who gets a nod—the Chi-Town MC dons a Sugarhill Gang–like cadence when chronicling his coming of age on the rocked-out “What a World” and emulates the Jungle Brothers on “Sex 4 Suga,” a dedication to his favorite clear-heeled stripteaser. Unfortunately, in reverting to old-school flows, Com’s wordplay weakens, especially on the latter, where he lobs halfhearted advances over a flimsy make-it-clap backdrop: “Your physique/Brings out my freak/I like the way your body speaks.”
But Universal inspires more than pop-locking. Common serves blush-worthy innuendos on the lethargic “Punch Drunk Love” and hosts a lyrical clinic over scratches and pots-and-pans percussion on “Inhale.” Likewise, punch-line deficiencies are sated with the two-fisted standout “Gladiator,” where Lonnie Lynn slays challengers over lashing snares and horn squeaks: “Your guys got you gassed/My flows are hybrid.” Still, the carefree storytelling and blissful chimes on the Cee-Lo Green–assisted “Make My Day” maintain the album’s overall high-energy vibe.
While occasionally too euphoric (the gleeful “Changes”), Universal’s good times don’t roll forever, capping at a trim 10 tracks. Ultimately, the quit-while-you’re-ahead approach helps rescue Common’s most experimental album since Electric Circus from becoming a musical freak show. Offering a brief intermission from neighborhood narratives and boom-bap sound-beds, Com proves that, sometimes, backpackers just wanna have fun. —JOHN KENNEDY