What goes up must come down, they say. Chicago emcee Common peaked in 2005 with the hit album Be. It was a critical and commercial high water mark for the rapper, who’d toiled in the underground for over a decade. I’d imagine watching less talented rappers sell more records than you gets kind of frustrating. He followed Be up last year with Finding Forever, which seemed like a faded carbon copy of Be. Common just didn’t sound hungry anymore. His rhyming, once widely acknowledged as among the best in hip-hop, had become lazy and tired, as the production became shinier and poppier than ever before. The choruses of “sellout” became louder and louder with each play of the album, which hasn’t aged particularly well. Despite all that (and very possibly because of the goodwill that his previous album generated), Finding Forever became Com’s first Number One album and also won him a Grammy.

I guess after mining the same musical and topical territory, Common decided that it was time for a change? Because Universal Mind Control is definitely not the Common that you’re used to. Apparently while hanging out in Europe, Common got the idea to make an album of music that would get some bang in the clubs instead of the coffee shops. You could hear the collective groan across the hip-hop nation when this was announced. The groans got louder when it was announced that the album would be largely produced by The Neptunes, a production outfit that’s known for shiny, poppy club anthems. I, like many other Common fans, picked this album up with a great deal of trepidation.

So, here’s the deal. Universal Mind Control isn’t the travesty I thought it was gonna be. The production sound is definitely different-The Neptunes (with talented half Chad Hugo thankfully on board) have given Common the least organic sound of his career. Synthesizers are out in full force, giving much of the album a pumped-up, adrenalized sound, while the rest of the album is moody and spacey. These moodier songs come across as almost like a second cousin to Kanye West’s 808s & Heartbreak, only minus the heartache and Auto-tune.

That said, the album is still a bit of an ill fit. The man can still rip a track the way he used to-check out the feverish Gladiator if you don’t believe me, but there are times when Common’s rhyme style just doesn’t fit properly with the club-friendly production. There are also several songs on which he sounds like he’s phoning it in, and strangely, they’re almost all sex/love songs. Now, coming from the man who’s written some of the warmest, most inviting love songs in the hip-hop genre (The Light, Love of My Life, Star 69 (P.S. with Love)), hearing trash like Punch Drunk Love and the God-awful Sex 4 Suga is quite disconcerting. This is especially since I was expecting the songs to have great rhyming over crappy production, when I actually wind up with crappy rhyming over pretty decent production. I must say, Pharrell and Chad are more or less on their “A” game throughout the album. Skateboard P even rips Common with a tight verse on Announcement, although he almost loses me when he compares his penis to a Blow Pop. I’ll never look at grape suckers with gummy centers the same way again.

There are times when a less complex Common actually works-like on the album’s caffeinated title track, an obvious homage to Afrika Bambaataa’s Planet Rock. Towards the album, on songs like Changes and Inhale, he even starts to sound like the old Common again, but he wastes a gorgeous vocal from Tricky sidekick Martina Topley-Bird and some excellent drum ‘n bass-inspired production from Mr. DJ (of OutKast fame) on the album’s closing track, Everywhere. That’s one song that would have been better without Common at all.

I’m all for change. Hey, I’m the guy who thinks Kanye’s trip into Radiohead territory has resulted in one of the best albums of 2008. However, some people are meant to stay in one lane and one lane only. Common is at his best when rhyming over hard-hitting hip-hop or thoughtful, soulful production. The electro-hop sound that permeates the majority of Universal Mind Control just isn’t a good look for him. While there are a handful of decent songs on this album, I don’t know that I can recommend an album like this knowing it’s from the same artist that gave us masterpieces like Be and Electric Circus. Something tells me that Common needs to get off of Hollywood’s Johnson and return home to Chicago for a little dose of reality, which seems to be his best muse.