COMMON PROBABLY wasn't living up to his old moniker, Common Sense, when he released "Electric Circus" in December. After all, the acclaimed Chicago-bred rapper had just graduated from a decade of underground acclaim to mainstream commercial success with his 2000 album "Like Water for Chocolate" and its Grammy-nominated single, "The Light."
There's no track called "Black Light" on the new album, but there could have been as Common moved from the progressive neo-soul-tinged flavor of "Chocolate" to a more experimental, multilayered meld of hip-hop and psychedelic rock and soul that blurred boundaries even as it widened the range of what hip-hop could be considered.
Or, as Common put it in "Aquarius, "Guard your grill like George Foreman, time to build / As far as building, I'm the doorman, opening doors."
"I definitely felt like I wanted to try to create something new for me, create some music that I'd never explored," Common explains. "I wanted to use some old elements of what I know from hip-hop but implement what I was discovering in music and life."
What Common was discovering was rock, particularly psychedelic rockers like Jimi Hendrix and Pink Floyd, and musically adventurous singer-songwriters like Joni Mitchell. It was music he basically tuned out while coming of age to the sounds of soul and jazz in the South Side of Chicago in the '80s.
"I grew up amongst black culture where there wasn't a lot of rock music being played," Common points out. "The popular rock songs I would get a hold of, but my cousin used to play Jimi Hendrix and I wasn't liking it -- I would walk out of the room! I just couldn't get into the music until I got to a certain point and friends of mine played me the music and then I started hearing it, started really digging into it. But I had definitely tuned it out at a certain point."
Common, born Lonnie Rashied Lynn, says he was more aware of psychedelic soul groups like Sly and the Family Stone, the Isley Brothers and the Temptations.
"Growing up, I was hearing that music around my buddies or the skating rink or wherever it was prevalent. But Pink Floyd? I just knew their name. With this album, I definitely wanted to be a bridge to some artists that I know black youths don't listen to. I could probably go to 10 kids in South Side Chicago and they've probably never heard of Joni Mitchell or Jimi Hendrix."
One of the tracks on the new album, "Jimi Was a Rock Star," includes the lyrics "Jimi was a rock star / Searching for that magic place in the sky / That he could touch just to get his people high." It suggests the transcendent experience Common aimed for, the notion of transporting listeners to new vistas in the tradition of psychedelic explorers of old.
"Maybe I was in a dream world," Common concedes, "but I felt people would go there with me, that they would move to where I moved to. And if they have, they're going to feel refreshed when they do hear it. I knew I was coming with something way different, some music that they weren't accustomed to, but I felt they would be able to adjust to it and eventually get into it.
"It's not that I don't want to sell records -- I definitely want to sell records -- but I'm concentrating on the music. One thing I learned from watching great artists and musicians, they do albums that represent where they are at the time. Like Miles Davis did 'Bitches Brew' and 'On the Corner,' but then he had 'Kind of Blue,' too. He could do a fusion album and then go and do some straight-ahead jazz. Or Stevie Wonder could do 'Music of My Mind' and then do '[Journey Through] the Secret Life of Plants.' 'Electric Circus' is what I was feeling; my next album is going to be totally different."
Currently touring with Gang Starr, Talib Kweli and Floetry, Common is working with a six-piece band that includes a DJ. "Live, we take it to a lot of places like 'Electric Circus,' but we also keep the element of raw hip-hop. It's a fun show."
There is one clear connection between "Like Water for Chocolate" and "Electric Circus": producer-drummer Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson of the Roots.
According to Common, "He's a great genius to work with because any type of music I say I want to go into, he can translate it. He can get the band to move towards it and once they do, he knows how to somehow keep it hip-hop. And even if it ain't sounding like what people know hip-hop sounds like, it still comes out authentic, and as beautiful music."
For instance, there's the opening incantation, "Ferris Wheel," which sets the mood for all that comes after, though it wasn't recorded until late in the game.
"In the studio one day Ahmir and [Soulquarians keyboardist] James Poyser said, 'Yo, let's do an intro,' and they just started playing. We were in the middle of doing another song, but we built it by having Vinia Mojica do a Yoruba prayer and then having Marie Daulne from Zap Mama do some chanting on it and then Jef Lee Johnson playing a guitar solo on it, which really gave it the colors and the dimension."
Common has other company, of course: Prince plays guitar and keyboards on the playful phone-sex romp "Star *69 (PS With Love)"; Bilal helps out on "Aquarius"; Pharrell Williams guests on the dirty blues rocker "I Got a Right Ta" (one of two Neptunes-produced tracks); Stereolab's Laetitia Sadier adds an airy chorus to "New Wave"; Jill Scott graces the celebratory "I Am Music" (with its New Orleans-flavored nod to Dr. Buzzard's Original Savannah Band); and Mary J. Blige sings on "Come Close," the other Neptunes production and the track that's gotten the most airplay and video exposure.
One other notable guest: Common's main squeeze Erykah Badu, who duets with him on "Jimi Was a Rock Star." Which happens to feature his first sung vocal.
That takes courage.
"I've been wanting to sing, but I couldn't, so I just never tried it," Common says. "But once I got the music for 'Jimi Was a Rock Star,' Erykah liked it a lot and started messing with the melody and writing some words and I just had to roll with it. 'Okay, let me figure out how to do this, and a voice to do this that could be a character that would be complementary and make this song good.' Singing with Erykah, it was like, 'Okay, how am I going to do this?' I got a chance to experiment and feel free and just fly with it because that's what the song needed. I couldn't rap to that song.
"And Erykah did some excellent coaching," Common confesses. "We went through a lot of studio sessions to just get me better at it. I remember the last session at Electric Lady, Erykah was asleep and it was four in the morning and she woke up and said, 'Nnnaaahh, that ain't right . . . take a breath right here.' I woke her up out of her sleep with my bad notes!
"That song's not just playful, kidding-around singing. You've got to go all kinds of different places, and for it to be my first adventure in singing, it was a challenge, point blank."
It was also a special experience: "Jimi Was a Rock Star" was recorded at Hendrix's Electric Lady Studios in New York. Common had been introduced to the legendary studio by ?uestlove and the Roots and D'Angelo and Badu recording there. "When I came to New York, it was just a good space for artists that wanted to do creative stuff and be in their own environment," he says of his new home base. "Of course, the spirit is beautiful there, that spirit of freedom from Jimi being there, so there was really a connection in working there."
Speaking of connections, the new album's last track, "Heaven Somewhere," features everyone who participated in the "Electric Circus" sessions, as well as Common's father, in an expansive mutual meditation.
"It was, 'Let's get these spirits together on one chord, one cloud, talking about what we believe heaven to be,' " Common explains, saying the 10-minute track "showed the different perspectives in these different spirits, different interpretations and what they felt about it, yet everybody's connected. And it was showing that all those artists that I chose in one way or another are great artists, beautiful artists, and when they connect, it's a community thing. And that was like a benediction when you're leaving church."
COMMON -- Appearing Wednesday with Gang Starr, Talib Kweli and Floetry at the 9:30 club. * To hear a free Sound Bite from Common, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8121. (Prince William residents, call 703-690-4110.)