February 16, 2009

Reader Review: Common - Universal Mind Control (December 9, 2008)

(Today, Archibald (who also pens his own blog, Puppies With Hats) pens a response to one of my more recent Gut Reaction posts, with a drastically different take on Common’s Universal Mind Control. Does the man have a point? Probably, but you’ll enjoy reading his write-up anyway.)

Allow me to preface this review with a question for everybody but Common’s mom (including, apparently, Common himself): Why all the hate for Universal Mind Control? (To answer that question, here’s a link to my original post.)

In my humble opinion, the main source (heh) of irritation regarding Universal Mind Control is that Common dropped everything he did well (rap about the black man’s plight over chilled out beats by the current producer du jour, usually somebody whose name rhymes with Jilla or Zanye) and decided to do something else, which was to make a fun album for once in his life.

I understand why people dump on this, but still—it’s got some great production, and while the lyrics are a little lighter than most of Common’s work, it’s not like he committed any war crimes on wax (although “Sex 4 Suga” comes pretty fucking close, I’ll admit). This is a pretty fun album to listen to, if only for the beats. The point is, my roommates and I have had this album on repeat for a while now, so at least somebody likes it.

I’ve always thought of Common as the John Mayer of rap music—hell, Mayer’s even appeared on Common songs before—in that he’s a pleasant enough performer, if not a little boring (except in maybe Street Kings), and this album is his attempt to depart from that image. It’s almost like what would happen if John Mayer made a heavy metal album instead of yet another collection of light guitar pop (in between pillow fights with Jennifer Aniston).

So is the hate justified? Let’s find out!

The Neptunes, otherwise known as Skateboard P and the other guy, produced seven of the ten tracks on this album, and they start it off with a bang(er). This sounds exactly like “Planet Rock” (it sounds more to me like “Looking For The Perfect Beat”), so much so that I’m surprised they didn’t cut Afrika Bambaataa a check. (I’m pretty sure he received some compensation, even if it was a half-eaten box of Tagalongs.)

This is one of the two songs I immediately skip as soon as it comes up on the album. (Thank fucking God.) Kanye’s hook sounds like it was just something he drunkenly yelled at a girl at the club, which Pharrell just so happened to record with his iPhone as a way of shoehorning ‘Ye onto Common’s album, which last time I checked Illinois statutes, is a legal requirement. While he doesn’t commit his most atrocious crimes against the English language until “Sex 4 Suga,” Common does the track no favors.

Mr. DJ, an affiliate of the Dungeon Family, was responsible for this track (along with a couple others on the album), and contrary to Max’s review, I happen to like this song. Cee-Lo, who might be the most dynamic relevant singer in the universe (even more so than John Mayer), provides a hook that burrowed into my head like a tuneful badger trying to hide from the army of angry bloggers who hated this song. (Good use of imagery, I have to admit.)

I cannot do or say anything to defend this. I cannot imagine anybody who took the time to listen to the lyrics actually liking this song. One time a fire alarm went off in my building and, as I was trying to leave my room, my doorknob fell off, so I was forced to listen to a fire alarm blaring for an hour. I’d rather go through that situation again that have to replay “Sex 4 Suga.” While we’re all hating on Common’s sex raps, I’d like to take time to point out that this isn’t exactly a new thing for him. Am I mistaken, or is the song “Go” off of Be (clearly recorded in Lonnie’s one-syllable, two letters only phase) not about sex?

As somebody (sacrilege alert) who has never heard Biggie’s “Dreams,” I have no problem with the Neptunes’ beat-jackage. This song isn’t too terrible, and features a way-more-coherent-than-usual verse from Johansen P, as he was known before he discovered skateboarding. More than anything this song is only slightly better than average. (You may want to listen to “Dreams” now, you two, just to see the contrast.)

Now that’s more like it! This is pretty good. The beat knocks, and Common’s line about how his flows are hybrid is pretty funny, but there’s still the issue of WHAT THE FUCK WAS COMMON THINKING WHEN HE SAID HE WANTED TO BREAK MIKE VICK OUT OF JAIL??? Mike Vick is guilty as fuck. Dude had dog kennels at his house and everything.

Common’s “Vote for Obama” song, which is thoughtful of him, seeing as Obama had (easily) won the election nearly a month before this song came out. (Bear in mind that Universal Mind Control was once called Invincible Summer, and was supposed to see the shelves in mid-2008.) Anywho, he keeps the politicking isolated to the first verse and finishes the song with a verse about how kids are smarter than him, not something you usually find on a rap song not recorded by Frankenstein’s monster (or Elmo).

This is a pretty good song. Common talks about how weed helps him keep perspective, and Pharell and Chad play synth and provide a drum track that sounds as if they were auditioning for the show Stomp and decided to beat on some pots and pans. All is right with the world.

You have to be on coke to enjoy this song. This is only enjoyable if, before listening to It, you spend three silent, awkward hours in a stranger’s apartment holding out against hope that he might, just out of the kindness of his heart, offer you one or two lines of Colombian. Chester French sound kind of like the band Ratatat, except if Ratatat sang. And if they kind of sucked. (Glad to see that I’m not the only person nonplussed with Chester French, who is being touted as one of many “next big things”.)

Mr. DJ closes the album out nicely with easily the best Common son I have ever heard (seriously?), even though he does take his sweet-ass time showing up on the track. Even though I liked Ms. Topley-Bird’s vocals, I don’t think I could listen to an entire album of hers without tearing at least one of my eyelids off. Common switches up his flow a bit on this song to suit the instrumental, something he almost never does, preferring to allow the producer to craft the instrumental for his laid-back style.

I only have the regular tracks version, but I spent about two seconds on the internet and found the bonus track that Max wrote about:

This track is pretty meh, though it’s refreshing to hear a Dilla-esque instrumental after ten tracks of Neptunes and Mr. DJ.

FINAL THOUGHTS: Despite what you have heard, Universal Mind Control is actually a pretty good album. Chad, Pharrell, and Mr. DJ provided Common with a nice arsenal of instrumentals onto which he can project his rhymes. One of my main complaints about Common is that he suffers from some disease where his albums become the musical equivalent of Ambien. (A fair assessment, I suppose.) His flow generally stays relaxed and calm, and he keeps his lyrics vaguely positive if a little bland sometimes, and all of his instrumentals have more or less the same, organic, chilled out vibe. Common usually creates music that I can do homework to, but with Universal Mind Control, he’s made an album that demands to be listened to not just as background music. And, seriously, it’s not like you’re going to glean any life lessons from this album, but you probably should have figured that one out no later than the tenth bar of “Punch Drunk Love” when Common talks about defining a girl’s ass. That’s about as academic as he gets on this disc. I can’t speak for anybody else, but I really liked this.

BUY OR BURN? Depends on whether you’d rather listen to me or the bloggers.

BEST TRACKS: “Universal Mind Control,” “Gladiator,” “Inhale,” “Everywhere”


(Agree? Disagree? Or are you simply satisfied that Hip Hop Isn’t Dead ran two conflicting takes on Common’s album within a short time span? Leave some love and hate in the comments regardless. And for those of you that are interested, here's the link to the original write-up.)


  1. Best common song you have ever heard, like max said, seriously? Have you never heard "I Used to Love H.E.R.", and thats just his most known song he has ALOT of better songs than that....

  2. So its a fun album thats not fun to listen to. It makes me sad and my mood only lightens up if i play some LWfC or Resurrection or Be.
    Max, once this stupid ass stunt is over, please review Like Water for Chocolate please.
    My favorite rap music album - ever.

  3. Why yes, I have in fact heard "I Used to Love H.E.R.," but it just doesn't do it for me the way "Everywhere" does. I'm not saying that it's going to be the best Common song that everybody hears, but for whatever reason I like it a lot.

    While I'm defending my preference for this album, I'd like you, the anonymous internet commenter, to remember that preference for popular media (i.e., taste) is completely subjective. One of my problems with the hip hop blogosphere is that lots of bloggers state their opinions as if they were objective facts--a bunch of dudes on the internet disliking UMC en masse is not tantamount to a room full of scientists agreeing that the earth's gravity has a downward pull of 32 feet per second. I wrote this post fully armed with knowledge that my opinions might stir the pot a little bit, if you will. So just read it as one person's subjective take on a piece of entertainment, representing a viewpoint that hasn't made itself heard as vociferously as the others.

    Also, "I Used to Love H.E.R." is way overrated.

    just kidding

  4. the most felonious vocalist in the wide world of showbusinessFebruary 17, 2009

    I disagree with almost every opinion presented here but I thought the review was written well and funny. Way to go, dude. Now go listen to Resurrection and One Day it'll All Make Sense. I'll wait. Now take back what you said about the Tweety-Bird song.

    Nice job, Archibald.

  5. Chill he said the best Common "son"

  6. not a great album, not as good as his last couple, but some good production and I respect that he was trying - but failing, I.M.O. - a fresh approach (I hold similar sentiments towards Kanye's last album). great review, as it's always good to hear from someone who doesn't share the consensus opinion

  7. common is overrated

  8. this shit is overrated, this aint shit compared to common's classic albums from the 90s

  9. terrible review