Common’s 2002 Electric Circus was “ahead of its time.” That’s usually a nice way of saying that the album sucked. And yes Electric Circus sucked. It was criticized and generally misunderstood upon release (“misunderstood” being another critic word for suckage). It wasn’t hip hop, but high concept neo-soul with elements of rock and electronic music in the sprawling beats. You can hear the seeds of Kendrick Lamar in the freewheeling style and the chantalong choruses. Imagine the pairing of Kendrick and J Dilla – a modern hip hop dream.

The problem is Common. Where Kendrick inhabits a beat, Common just floats. At times it just feels half-assed. That’s a tough criticism – we can’t expect every artist to bleed their soul into the grooves. But conceptually Electric Circus begs for that level of commitment. It’s as if Common as an artist wanted to produce a work of deep insight and resonance but the album failed due his lack of investment. In that sense Electric Circus was not that much a deviation from a catalog full of weighty themes buried in bloated albums.

Nonetheless – Common is an undeniable elite MC. I feel bad criticizing him for indulgent ambitions but that’s often the root of his problems – One Day It’ll All Make Sense and Like Water For Chocolate have the elements of classic records that just get bogged down with bullshit. Big concepts stifle rather than support, the type of songs that tackle serious issues at the cost of listenability. But when he’s good, he’s great.

It’s not fair to label Common as a conscious rapper. I don’t like the term anyway, because it usually refers to a pandering, paper thin level of thought – yes we get it, we need more schools and world peace and yadda yadda. But Common is deeper than that, and he’s capable of a rare sort of insight that will better your life if you’re listening closely. And don’t mistake his hippie dippie hipster/pimp persona – his 1994 diss “The Bitch In Yoo” effectively ended Ice Cube’s gangsta rap run (“Rap career is over, better off acting”).

His two best albums were the Kanye produced Be and Finding Forever, which cut out the frills for just beats and flows. Be is Kanye’s best single production work, a streamlined classic – it’s the only Common album where I don’t skip tracks, but play it right through and then play it over again. Finding Forever is the lesser sequel that still contains one of my favorite beats and another classic single “The People.”

Common can be a frustrating, enigmatic artist. He’s sincere – which is a rare and valuable thing in hip hop. His work has aged well, and is more accessible in the post-album era when we can skip over the bloat and make playlists of the best stuff. Every once in a while I give Electric Circus another shot. It’s challenging (another critic word that means it sucks – sorry Common).