With our upcoming Christmas break in mind, along with general hesitance to either praise Common for Universal Mind Control or rip him a new one, it's looking like we won't be reviewing the album. So we look to the Internets to see what the vibe is. Common (heh) themes that run throughout these assessments are that the Neptunes are an underwhelming fit for Common's vocals and that Kanye is sorely missed, along with too much sexual bravado and conceptual unevenness. Check out this selection of reviews and don't forget to take the poll after the bounce, as well as weighing in in the comments.
The length is possibly the album's greatest savior and smartest characteristic. Coming in at just about 38 minutes, UMC allows for tons and tons of playback with plenty of easy listening material. Although, with something this short, there is minimal room for error, and of course, this album evidently has a few hiccups. It certainly isn't a lyrical masterpiece, and sadly, it isn't much of anything but a quick Common fix. Regardless, even with its laughably blatant sex talk and synth heavy production, Common has managed to create a fairly enjoyable album that would've been great as a (originally planned) summer release, a season where lyrics go to die.
The beats, most of them crafted by the hit-making production team the Neptunes (Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo), are colder and more robotic than Common's typically dusty soul vibe. They recycle the staccato beat of their N.E.R.D. single "Lapdance" and the bass line from Chic's disco-era classic "Good Times," and frequently reference early '80s electro-funk and new wave. But the rapper sounds like he's daydreaming out loud while paging through a porn magazine. His usually deft wordplay has never sounded clunkier than on the embarrassingly oversexed rhymes of "Punch Drunk Love," "Make My Day" and "Sex 4 Suga."
In fact, the flair that is championed on most Common albums is absent, leaving a vapid display of good ideas with unenthused delivery. This nonchalance has placed Universal Mind Control's release, regardless of its intentions, in poor form, doing little for progressing Common's ability. It does, however, show the dangers of a split focus, and perhaps that lack of control is enough to right him.
On Universal Mind Control, his eighth studio album, Common opts for a frustrating fusion of Daft Punk-lite electronica and sexually-charged fluff. Social awareness is shelved in favor of dopey wordplay that's palpably mismatched with Pharrell-produced dance tracks like the ribald "Announcement"... The Neptunes' beats are anemic compared to the hyper-soul chic that Kanye West conjured on 2005's Be. As if to prove the point, Yeezy stumbles through the chorus of "Punch Drunk Love" while Common sluggishly rhapsodizes about how "it feels like I'm home / when I'm in between your thighs."
Too much of "Universal Mind Control" falls conceptually flat. "Sex 4 Sugar" hints at Barry White, but it stalls out with Common's unclever seduction rhymes. Wasted opportunities abound, including an inconsequential final track with Tricky's muse-chanteuse, Martina Topley-Bird. Common gained currency, but too much is squandered.
The tepid second half is oddly something of a relief. Common shows signs of life on "Gladiator", surging powerfully over noir strings and jittery piano, but comparing yourself to Nelson Mandela-- not to mention "a radical" who "don't fit the game"-- is a tough sell on this record. At least Common sounds comfortable amid the breezy chimes and canned platitudes. A perfunctory Obama shout-out on "Changes" finds Common taking a rare glimpse outside of himself, but it's too little, too late. Universal Mind Control is a painful misstep from a talented rapper who's decided to be as nasty as he wants to be-- which turns out to be much, much nastier than we'd like.