Kanye West and Common, both hugely respected rappers with long track records, dropped similar fourth and eighth albums, respectively.
The melodic odes to women in their lives were not major departures for either artist, but the techno-influenced songs placed a heavier emphasis on singing than Kanye or Common has ever shown before.
Common’s Universal Mind Control, relatively short at 10 tracks, feels like the old school in new clothes. The subject matter stays light, a good thing because Comm invariably loses his own lyrical thread when he wades too deeply, and a neo-electro funk pervades the beats.
Standout tracks are “Make My Day,” a sunny day on wax, and “Gladiator,” which borrows a bit of the circus-y horns from Electric Circus for the closest thing to a battle track on the CD.
“Punch Drunk Love” and “Sex 4 Suga” are predictable, sometimes sleazy and entirely skippable.
Mind Control is a bit like a Mystery Mix Now-and-Later (old heads know what I’m talking about): sweet, fleeting, and though purported to be unusual and new, is really just a remix of familiar flavors. Despite the serious title, a listen reveals Comm just wants to have fun and make a little crossover bread.
Kanye’s 808s & Heartbreak takes the singing trend a step further, with him on the vocals of almost every song and very little rapping at all. In fact, it’s a mistake to call this a rap album, and a stretch to cover it in a Hip-Hop column. Mr. West bares his soul, taking listeners on a journey through apparently the toughest break-up imaginable, and repeatedly makes the determination that having everything material is no substitute for a “real life.”
In “Welcome to Heartbreak,” he raps:
“He said his daughter got a brand-new report card/ and all I got is this brand-new sports car .’’
“Heartless” is gut-wrenching, and though it is principally about his breakup with designer Alexis Phifer, the angst in his voice reminds us that Kanye lost his mother just last year (R.I.P., Ms. Donda):
“I got everything figured out but could never find what real love is about…There is no YSL they could sell to get my mind outta this hell… There no clothes that I could buy that could turn back time there is no vacation spot I could fly that could bring back a piece of real life.’’
Heartfelt though it may be, 808s is still a strange animal. The beats are too similar and become monotonous over time, so it’s not a great pick to play straight through for background music, or at a listening party. The lyrics are emotional, but his vocal stylings are too flat to pump up for just one song.
Kanye has the deeper album, but for better listening, give Universal Mind Control a spin.