Electric Circus is the fifth studio album by rapperCommon, released December 10, 2002 on the now-defunct MCA Records. The album was highly anticipated and praised by many critics for its ambitious vision. However, it was not as commercially successful as his previous album, Like Water for Chocolate, selling under 300,000 copies. An eclectic album, Electric Circus featured fusions of several genres such as hip hop, pop, rock, electronic, and neo soul. This was Common's second and last album for MCA, and the label's final release prior to its absorption into Geffen Records.
The label hadn't heard my music until I got near the end of the album. At one point it was like 'yo, man, you departed so far from the last album... the music you're making ain't really conducive to what's going on in modern music right now'.
"Between Me, You & Liberation", in which Common discusses sexual abuse and its effects on a young woman, confronting his homophobia after learning about the sexuality of a longtime friend, and the loss of a relative to cancer, contains themes wholly unusual for a rap song, and is, perhaps, the rapper's most vulnerable moment on record. About "Liberation..." Pop Matters wrote that it's "one of those rare occasions when a male hip-hop artist owns up to his investment in some of the genre's more unsavory sexual politics". Musically, the song is very downbeat and moody, and features a guest spot from rapper/singer/producer Cee-lo Green (making this the pair's third collaboration after One Day It'll All Make Sense's "G.O.D.", and Like Water For Chocolate's "A Song For Assata").
Following LWFC's tributes to Fela Kuti, and Assata Shakur, Electric Circus pays homage to someone altogether more familiar (Jimi Hendrix) on "Jimi Was A Rock Star". The 8 minute-plus song is a duet between Common and his then-girlfriend Erykah Badu, which gradually builds up into its cryptic, chanting finale. This song is Common's first all-singing performance. The center-piece of the album, the epic "Heaven Somewhere", features 6 vocalists who all give insight into what their interpretation of Heaven is. Common's father Lonnie Lynn ends the affair with an introspective look at his ideal place.
The album's style tended to divide critics; most praised its ambitious vision while some criticized it for the same reason. Most of the criticism tended to revolve around the album's experimental nature. Some felt Common had strayed too far from his previous sound. Longtime Common fans also viewed his relationship with Erykah Badu as having an overly experimental influence on him, while some critics compared the album to Marvin Gaye's I Want You and Richard Ashcroft's Human Conditions, both of which were experimental works that initially received mixed criticism. In a 2003 review, Nick Southall of Stylus Magazine gave the album a D+ and wrote:
So, is this genius or is this madness? As enjoyable as it is on occasion, I’m inclined to side with the latter. Marvin Gaye tried it. Richard Ashcroft tried it. One of them did a fantastic job, the other did not. Common sits somewhere between the two. Odd. Very, very odd.
Official reviews were mostly positive. "Pushing past the accepted boundaries of contemporary black pop" is how PopMatters described the album by giving it all ten stars. Likewise, Playlouder gave it four stars out of five, calling it "a brilliant, visionary album", as did Rolling Stone who only gave it three stars out of five and saw it as "breaking hip-hop rules with a freewheeling fearlessness." Ink Blot Magazine's Matt Cibula called it his "favorite record of 2002".The Independent gave it a favorable review and called it "is the most heartening recent development in hip hop, the kind of album that might help lead the genre out of its present darkness."The Village Voice gave it an average review and said it "sounds chocolatey and recombinant even when it doth protest the Enlightened Guy angle too much." RapReviews gave it a score of 7 out of 10 and said, "Last time around on 'Like Water for Chocolate' Common still had his Chicago flows, just spiced a little differently with Okayplayer oregano. This could and SHOULD have worked again, but the mix this time is bitter and leaves me feeling a little salty. The 'Electric Circus' could rightly have been called the 'Eclectic Circus' for the unconventional way it tries to combine disparate elements into a cohesive whole."
Despite the critical approval, the record debuted at #47 on the Billboard 200 chart, 31 spots lower than Like Water for Chocolate's highest chart position. With "Come Close" as the only single, the album quickly fell off the charts altogether, and MCA Records halted any further promotion. Part of the reason for its lack of promotion was MCA's absorption under Geffen Records in spring 2003, a mere four months after the album's release. Since both labels were under the Universal Music Group, Common's record contract would be carried over to Geffen, but the handling of Electric Circus (an already under-performing album) was neglected. The lack of promotion may have also led to only 293,000 copies being sold based on 2005 Nielsen SoundScan statistics.
In a 2006 interview concurrent with the release of The Roots' album Game Theory, Questlove, the album's executive producer, maintained that Common's relationship with Erykah Badu had little influence on the album and stated that the greater influence was the recording atmosphere at the famous Electric Lady Studios (built by Jimi Hendrix) and the group of artists that Common was collaborating with at the time:
The album's cover appears to be a nod to The Beatles' 1967 album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, another work known for its experimental nature. The images (a mixture of known personalities, personal friends, and family of the artist) represent those directly or indirectly involved in, or influential to the making of the album. The people depicted in the photos are: