A spirit of friendly but fierce competition courses through progressive hip-hop's upper echelon, pushing the genre's pioneers to new heights of creativity, ambition, and experimentation. Blackalicious' Blazing Arrow set a gold standard for major-label adventurousness earlier this year, but labelmates Common and The Roots aren't ready to concede the fight for hip-hop's innovation crown. Like many of his contemporaries, Common enlisted the hit-making expertise of The Neptunes for Electric Circus' first single, "Come Close," a disarmingly tender love song that functions as a sequel of sorts to "The Light," the breakthrough single from his superb last album, Like Water For Chocolate. Even if it didn't feature Mary J. Blige's empathetic vocals, "Come Close" would still be a safe choice for a first single, but like The Roots' slinky "Break You Off," the song is a deceptively accessible Trojan horse for an album bursting with sonic, lyrical, and conceptual creativity. A more representative sample of Electric Circus' fearless abandon lies in the deranged bit of rap boogie-woogie "I Got A Right Ta," another Neptunes-produced track, which single-handedly proves that Chad Hugo and Pharrell Williams are not only rap's biggest hit-makers, but also two of its weirdest superstars. Part swaggering B-boy, part worldly Renaissance man, Common lets his freak flag fly on Electric Circus, which looks far beyond its core genre for inspiration. "New Wave" suggests Stereolab discovering hip-hop, while "Star *69 (PS With Love)" recalls The Artist Once Again Known As Prince at his lovesexiest. A trippy jam that runs more than eight minutes and ends with a burst of sonic dissonance, "Jimi Was A Rock Star" catches Common in a psychedelic mood, as does "Aquarius." Like The Roots' new Phrenology, Electric Circus possesses many of the weaknesses associated with ambition: a bloated running time, the faint aroma of pretension, an obligatory spoken-word piece, and songs that outlast their welcome. But minor growing pains are a small price to pay for such dramatic growth. Common made his name chronicling hip-hop's past on "I Used To Love H.E.R.," and with Electric Circus, he stakes his claim on the genre's future. Common is just one of the many rap legends name-checked on Phrenology's "WAOK (AY) Roll Call," but like Chicago's finest, The Roots explores rap's future rather than reveling in its past. The album combines a deep reverence for rap's visceral power with a desire to move the genre beyond its primordial synthesis of beats and rhymes. A mesmerizing mixture of buttery smoothness and bracing grit, Black Thought's voice remains one of popular music's most distinctive and powerful instruments, but Phrenology is equally noteworthy for its production. Hip-hop's funkiest, funniest drummer, ?uestlove continues to use the studio as a weapon in The Roots' well-stocked arsenal, as on "The Seed (2.0)," a transcendent ode to creation that rocks much harder than the tinny, lo-fi version found on Cody ChestnuTT's The Headphone Masterpiece. Phrenology benefits tremendously from its perfectionist attention to detail, which extends beyond production and musicianship to include its elaborate packaging and witty, info-laden liner notes. Phrenology doesn't need the hardcore punk rave-up "!!!!!!!" or the sound collage at the end of "Water," but the group's willingness to take chances pays huge dividends elsewhere, like the thumping, disco-friendly bonus track and the aforementioned "The Seed (2.0)." A worthy follow-up to Things Fall Apart, Phrenology proves yet again that The Roots exceeds the sum of its outstanding parts.