Common’s 2002 album Electric Circus was met with a lot of scratched heads upon release. The Chicago MC had already engineered a stylistic shift from prototypical boom-bap to full-on neo-soul, and broke through commercially with 1999′s Like Water For Chocolate. Even with that genre detour though, Electric Circus was on some other shit. It was incredibly creative and daring, but hedz wasn’t ready for the experimental vibe the album had. Hip-hop was still coming to terms with aging gracefully within the genre, and I fear Electric Circus, despite lofty ambitions, might have been just a bit ahead of the curve. It was overall a good album, though, even despite the fact that some of the more adventurous material didn’t totally stick the landing.
“Between You, Me and Liberation” was the most directly personal song Common had released to that point, and its lyrical impact has only been diluted slightly in the fifteen years that have passed since its release. In the song’s three verses, Common creates three character studies-a woman who converts childhood trauma into sexual and personal liberation, a relative liberating herself from a terminal illness, and most strikingly, a childhood friend liberating himself through acknowledgement of his own homosexuality.
As a queer person and a huge hip-hop fan, I’d struggled for many years to balance my life-long love of the genre with lyrics that have been blatantly homophobic over the years. There’s also been the knowledge that open queerness (at least in regards to men) was never going to be accepted in the machismo-heavy rap world. Common himself was no stranger to occasionally using the word “faggot” in his rhymes, and dropped a disturbingly tasteless Greg Louganis rhyme into his guest appearance on De La Soul’s “The Bizness” in 1996. Hearing Common rhyme so passionately about his friend’s experience gave me yet another indication that hip-hop was progressing as we moved into the 21st century.
I’ve also got to give a shout out to an uncharacteristically restrained Cee-Lo Green, who sings “Between You, Me & Liberation”’s chorus. Minus his signature bellow, he’s almost unrecognizable. But not every song requires a dramatically sung chorus, and the subtle touch Cee-Lo brought to the proceedings was perfect considering the song’s sober nature.