Common Electric Circus

On his fifth album, Chicago native Common once again proves that he is anything but. Electric Circus is the voice of an artist who's confident in his genre, yet innovative enough to continually push its supposed limits. Featuring stellar production by the Soulquarians and Jay Dee, and brilliant eclectic collaborations with guests ranging from Jill Scott to Stereolab's Laetitia Sadier, Electric Circus ushers in a new era for hip-hop and raises the bar for MCs in 2003. Common's lyrical maturity is witnessed on the stunning "Between Me, You & Liberation," a deeply moving tale of a lover's past abuse, an aunt's struggle with cancer and a close friend coming to grips with his homosexuality. While other so-called "conscious" rappers continue to perpetuate homophobia in hip-hop, Common is the first to step up and move things forward: "How could I judge him?/Had to accept him if I truly loved him." The disc concludes with "Heaven Somewhere," a sprawling ten-minute epic that includes trademark closing wisdom from "Pops," aka Common's father. Leave it to the man who told us how he "Used to Love H.E.R." to prove he still does years later. (MCA/Universal, www.okayplayer.com) (Universal)