January 27, 2003 12:00 PM

Common (MCA)

A more apropos title for Common’s adventurous fifth album might have been Eclectic Circus. The alternative rapper (real name: Lonnie Lynn) shows uncommon daring on a 13-song set that stretches from hardcore hip-hop to psychedelic rock to jazzy bebop. Much like the Roots’ excellent new album Phrenology, this disc is much more than just another rap CD. Roots drummer Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson even helped Common create his sprawling soundscape, coproducing and cowriting nine tracks. Common also gets all-star support from, among others, Mary J. Blige, Prince, Jill Scott and Erykah Badu. The latter, who is Common’s girlfriend, inspired the album’s first single, “Come Close,” one of the most romantic songs ever recorded by a rapper. “Truth is, I can’t hide from you/ The pimp in me may have to die with you,” he rhymes in a smooth, chilled-out delivery over a spare, bass-heavy beat. Elsewhere Common experiments with Hendrix-like guitar and trippy atmospherics on the far-out “Electric Wire Hustler Flower.” Less successful is his muddling 8½-minute Hendrix tribute “Jimi Was a Rock Star,” on which Common, duetting with Badu, makes a forgettable singing debut. Still, you’ve got to give him credit for taking the risk.

BOTTOM LINE: Run away and join this Circus

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