Happy 15th Anniversary to Commons fourth LP Like Water for Chocolate, originally released March 28, 2000.
Lonnie Rashid Lynn Jr. better known as Common was introduced to tens of millions of people around the globe, for the very first time, with his impassioned speech following his and collaborator John Legends deserving Best Original Song triumph at last months Academy Awards. While Common is just now garnering broader household name recognition, and rightfully so, there are many of us who have been well acquainted with the man and his music for just shy of a quarter-century.
Since its inception back in 1992, Commons recording career has been an intriguing one to observe. Refreshingly chameleonic in many respects, the Chicago-bred emcee has refined and reinvented his sound with each of his ten albums to date, none of which have succumbed to the monotonous carbon copy syndrome that often plagues other less adventurous artists. Indeed, he has continually placed a relentlessly high premium on innovation and experimentation, while keeping his artistic integrity firmly intact. Common is progression personified, and he has irrefutably fulfilled his self-proclaimed prophecy of becoming a hip-hop pioneer.
If memory serves, I first heard Common known at the time by his original moniker, Common Sense on Yo! MTV Raps in 92, via the video for his first-ever single Take It EZ. Impressed with his spirited rhymes, commanding delivery, and unique voice, I picked up his debut long player Can I Borrow a Dollar? a short time later, enjoyed it for sure, and was eager to hear more from him.
Two years later, his sophomore album Resurrection dropped and my 17-year old mind was officially blown. Resurrection quickly became one of my all-time favorite LPs, hip-hop or otherwise. In fact, when I began penning album reviews for my high schools student newspaper in the fall of my senior year, Resurrection was the first album I selected to review. Happily forsaking any attempt at critical objectivity, my effusive, gushing love for the record jumped off the page. While the iconic ode to hip-hop affection and first single I Used to Love H.E.R. is the standout track for me, Communism, Thisisme, and the title track are the next most obvious song highlights. Containing nary a filler song to be heard, Resurrection is a bona fide hip-hop classic. The album is an important one in the annals of rap music, as it arguably placed Chicago on the hip-hop map that had previously been monopolized by New York and Los Angeles. And beyond its geographic implications, Resurrection earned its creator a broader audience that began to regard him as a legitimate artistic force, possessed of incredible promise and potential for longevity in the game.
A more prolonged than anticipated period of three years elapsed between Resurrection and the release of his third album, largely due to Common becoming a new father in the interim. Finally released in the fall of 1997, the stunning One Day Itll All Make Sense was a noticeably more mature, poignant, and polished LP than its two predecessors. With his producer-in-arms No I.D. manning the soundboard for the third consecutive album, Common was joined by a handful of esteemed colleagues, offering testament to the fact that his reputation had become well-fortified throughout the hip-hop community. Notable contributors included Lauryn Hill (Retrospect for Life), De La Soul (“Gettin’ Down At The Amphitheater”), Q-Tip (Stolen Moments Pt III), Black Thought (Stolen Moments Pt. II), Erykah Badu (All Night Long), and Cee-Lo Green (G.O.D.), among others.
Critically applauded at the time of its release, One Day It’ll All Make Sense contains some of Commons best and most balanced work to date. Somewhat perplexingly, I recall bearing witness to some grumblings in more outspoken circles and among some of my fellow music heads that the album marked a bit of a creative regression when compared to Resurrection. Yeah, I didnt hear it, but go figure. Perhaps the expectations and standards of some were unfairly inflated, considering the momentum that had been brewing around Common since Resurrection, but for me and for many others his third offering is a phenomenal album.
Three solid albums under his belt, and hoping to circumvent the creative and spiritual complacency that can often accompany newfound acclaim, Common uprooted himself in more ways than one. In 1999, he relocated from his native stomping grounds of Chicago to the fertile soils of New York City. In a recent interview for Complex Magazines Magnum Opus series, Common reflects that Comin to New York was like an opening for a new chapter and new creativity. Being exposed to new things. This notion of embracing the dynamism of life in New York City as a way to revive and nourish the soul certainly resonates with me, personally, as I too moved there one year later in 2000, after feeling stagnated and uninspired in Los Angeles. As a matter of fact, I recall seeing Common as well as his former paramour, Badu strolling around my adopted neighborhood of Fort Greene, Brooklyn from time to time, during my first few years living there.
In addition to moving east, Common moved record labels, from the indie Relativity Records, which had commissioned his first three LPs, to MCA Records, one of the largest record companies and home to The Roots, GZA, and Mary J. Blige, at the time. In a new city, with a major label now backing him, Common was able to focus his energy more than ever before toward exercising his artistic freedoms and exploring new paths for his music.
One Day Itll All Make Sense marked the last of Commons albums that No I.D. would produce until the duo later reunited for 2011s The Dreamer/The Believer and 2014s Nobodys Smiling efforts. And in his longtime collaborators absence, Common sought out new co-conspirators that would help to inspire a new, evolved sonic direction. Inspiration arrived soon after he landed in New York, in the form of the kindred musical spirits he found in the Soulquarians. Following in the footsteps of that other beloved bohemian artist commune, Native Tongues, the Soulquarians were a vibrant collective of like-minded musicians that embraced an unyielding passion for pushing sonic boundaries and creating, quite simply, good music that moved people. Questlove, DAngelo, J Dilla, James Poyser, Badu, Q-Tip, Talib Kweli, Mos Def, Roy Hargrove, Bilal, Pino Palladino, and their adopted brother, Common, were the exalted visionaries that comprised the soulful fellowship. And together, their music successfully blurred the line between avant-garde sophistication and mainstream appeal. Not an easy feat to pull off, mind you. According to Common in the aforementioned Complex interview, We really did want to create a collective that possessed the ability to push music forward and to also put out a positive energy towards music, and elevate peoples consciousness, opening their minds.
In his recent soulhead article Love, Peace and Soulquarians, accomplished music writer Michael A. Gonzales reflects on the Soulquarians kaleidoscopic musical appetite:
Refusing to conform to stereotypical poses of Blackness (criminal-minded hoodrats, gold diggin bitches), the Soulquarians, like the family Stone before them, were racially and sexually mixed, open to different ideas in the eternal debate: What is soul? Equally, they loved Fela (Kuti) and Pink Floyd, Sly Stone and Joni Mitchell, Philly soul and Mason-Dixon Line funk.
By the time the new millennium arrived, the crews eclecticism had already been gloriously manifested on a trio of dynamic full-lengths: The Roots Things Fall Apart, Slum Villages Fantastic, Vol. 2 and DAngelos Voodoo. The next Soulquarian-blessed project would be Commons fourth LP, Like Water for Chocolate.
Recorded at the storied Electric Lady Studios in New York City and released in late March 2000, Like Water for Chocolate was and still is a revelation. The album constituted Commons formal coming of age as an artist by embodying an Afrocentric grace, poise, and intimacy that his previous output had only teased but never fully achieved. “Honestly, I had forgotten how incredible Like Water for Chocolate is, admits soulhead founder Ron Worthy. Revisiting the album recently, I felt nostalgia and reverence, followed by a deeper sadness, when I realized how shallow current hip-hop has become since falling from these considerable heights. Indeed, when contrasted with the vast majority of todays contemporary hip-hop, one cant help but recognize that Like Water for Chocolate established an insurmountable benchmark for artistic credibility, quality, and substance, one that few hip-hop albums have come even remotely close to emulating since.
Before I even pressed play on the album for the first time, two things stood out to me as noteworthy, relative to Common’s previous LPs. First was the albums title, lifted from the wonderful 1989 Laura Esquivel novel (and 1992 film adaptation), which I fondly recall reading in my high school Latin American Literature class. A fantastic work of magical realism, the novels chief protagonist, Tita de la Garza, expresses herself most profoundly through her cooking, which, when eaten, channels a visceral effect upon those around her. Similarly, Commons musical concoctions, when consumed, have been known to impact listeners in magical and meaningful ways. Common has previously discussed the parallels between Esquivels novel and his album of the same name, while clarifying the symbolic meaning of the title within the context of his music:
The water (represents) the water sign of me: the emotion within the music. And the chocolate is representing the Soul: the Blackness in this music. (Like Water for Chocolate) is a metaphor to represent what I strive for my songs to do. If I’m feeling angry, I want the people who listening to feel mad. Or if I’m feeling like, “Yo Man, this is the struggle we goin’ thru. Man we gotta fight, we gotta uplift, I want them to feel that. These songs are like meals for the Soul.
In drawing inspiration from a globally revered work of literature, its obvious that Common didnt envision his fourth album as just another hip-hop record, but rather as a vital work of art evocative of more universal themes of life and love.
After the title, I was struck by the albums haunting cover image, which appropriates the legendary photographer Gordon Parks starkly powerful photograph Drinking Fountains, Birmingham, Alabama, 1956. Parks photograph depicts one of the hallmark symbols of American racial segregation and degradation, as a young black woman drinks from a colored-only water fountain juxtaposed with a white-only fountain. Understandably, some have interpreted a symbolic connection between the albums title and cover image, with water represented by the fountains and chocolate represented by the woman. And some others have taken the connection one step further, suggesting that in the context of the image, Like Water for Chocolate means that while water itself is the same whether the person drinking it is black or white, there were separate means by which black people were allowed to obtain it. Whats more, the cover was the first of Commons albums released up to that point not to feature his own likeness, which again reinforced the notion that he was devoting his music toward a more universal aesthetic and philosophy, above himself and beyond hip-hop alone.
Appetites for the album had already been sufficiently whet by the superb DJ Premier-produced and Bilal-assisted lead single The 6th Sense, featuring Common spitting fire with a re-energized confidence and swagger, as best evidenced on the tracks ruminative 2nd verse:
In front of two-inch glass and Arabs I order fries / Inspiration when I write, I see my daughter’s eyes / I’m the truth, across the table from corporate lies / Immortalized by the realness I bring to it / If revolution had a movie I’d be theme music / My music, you either fight, fuck, or dream to it / My life is one big rhyme, I try to scheme through it / Through my shell, never knew what the divine would bring to it / I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want millions / More than money saved, I wanna save children / Dealing with alcoholism and afrocentricity / A complex man drawn off of simplicity / Reality is frisking me / This industry will make you lose intensity / The Common Sense in me remembers the basement / I’m Morpheus in this hip-hop Matrix, exposing fake shit
Commons intensified self-reflection and righteousness, as he seeks to reconcile the inherent conflicts of the material versus the cultural and the spiritual, are the dominant themes peppered throughout Like Water for Chocolate. Tracks such as the J Dilla-produced Nag Champa (Afrodisiac for the World), the Afrobeat-inspired Fela Kuti homage Time Travelin’ (A Tribute to Fela) exemplify this deeper level of introspection that defines the album.
At the risk of stating the obvious, the virtues of Commons Soulquarian compatriots permeate all facets of the album. The Soulquarians know and love music, and they challenge themselves constantly, explains Gonzales. Together, well, they kinda helped hip-hop grow up. And in the case of Like Water for Chocolate, they helped Common grow, take himself more seriously as an artist. A lot of artists dry up creatively by their fourth album, but Common proved the opposite.
Broadly speaking, the Soulquarian ethos is most notably evoked through Commons thematic focus on attaining a higher state of self- and group consciousness, through a shared love and respect for the redemptive power of music, and an undying devotion to his craft. On Nag Champa, Common confides that Affecting lives is where the wealth and the merit is / I realize what I portray day to day, I gotta carry this / And beats, rhymes and life is where the marriage is. Likewise, on the gorgeous DAngelo collaboration Geto Heaven Part Two, he declares that to choose words, and be heard across waters / Doin’ something you like to support daughters is what makes music both a gift that is sacred and so much bigger than me.
Elsewhere throughout the album, Common traverses a handful of other themes. He explores hip-hop artists complex relationship with the music industrys superficial temptations on the MC Lyte-sparring A Film Called (Pimp), pays homage to exiled political activist and former Black Panther Party and Black Liberation Army member Assata Shakur on the eloquent A Song for Assata, and celebrates love and fidelity on the albums second and most widely recognizable single, The Light. In his conversation with Complex, Common reflects that the latter was the song that reached people I had never reached before. Rest assured, however, amidst the variety of subject matter on display throughout the album, there are still plenty of cuts that showcase Commons signature battle-rap like bravado, including Heat, Cold Blooded, and Dooinit. The album concludes as Resurrection and One Day Itll All Make Sense do, with the reassuring voice and heartfelt spoken word soliloquy delivered by his late father, Lonnie Pops Lynn, on Pop’s Rap III…All My Children.
Like Water for Chocolate is not just an exercise in the cerebral, however. Far from it. Sonically, its his most fully realized and comprehensively satisfying album to date. Which is impressive, when you consider that each of Commons albums to date sounds as if it was meticulously produced to ensure optimal listening pleasure, never feeling rushed or cobbled together. From the opening moments of first track Time Travelin’ (A Tribute to Fela), which finds Vinia Mojica singing in Spanish atop breaking waves and hushed horns, you know youve just embarked upon a totally different and more imaginative listening experience, relative to Commons previous works.
The characteristic sound of Like Water for Chocolate is an expansive, incessantly funky one that bounces along jauntily, propelled by a savory mix of crunchy beats, piano loops, horn riffs, unorthodox samples, and perfectly placed backing vocals. Executive produced by Soulquarian father figure Questlove, the albums sound is defined by the masterful production handiwork of fellow Soulquarians J Dilla, James Poyser, DAngelo, along with honorary members DJ Premier and Karriem Riggins. Truly an extended family affair, guest spots include all of the aforementioned artists, plus Hargrove, Jill Scott, Slum Village, Black Thought, Rahzel, Mos Def and Cee-Lo.
People often ask me why I am so insatiably obsessed with music. Granted, there are a handful of reasons, and surely too many to outline here. But one of the most salient ones for me is that music possesses a time capsule-like magic. Music can instantly transport me back to a specific place or period of my life, enabling me to lucidly remember and relive at least fragments of the experience in question. In the case of Like Water for Chocolate, no other album perhaps save for Jill Scotts debut LP Who Is Jill Scott? Words and Sounds Vol. 1 induces such crystalline visions of my early days in New York City and my acclimation to life in Brooklyn. Making the transition from west coast to east in 2000 was the most profoundly formative time in my adulthood thus far, with opportunities for both personal adventure and professional expansion knocking everywhere. And throughout this period of change, a small handful of records soundtracked my experiences, with Like Water for Chocolate one of my most constant aural companions.
Remarkably, Like Water for Chocolate still sounds as fresh and exhilarating as it did when I first heard it fifteen years ago. So it came as no great surprise that the album was re-released just this week, as part of Universal Music Enterprises awesome Respect the Classics vinyl reissue initiative. Hopefully, the albums return to stores means that a whole new generation of music heads will discover its brilliance for the very first time. And I encourage these same folks to then seek out Commons earlier work, as well as the albums that followed, beginning with the criminally slept-on, ambitiously next-level Electric Circus. And while Like Water for Chocolate may not stand as my favorite album in Commons prolific discography (heres looking at you, Resurrection), it is indisputably the first classic hip-hop album of our current millennium and one of the very best ever made in the genres rich history.
My Favorite Song: “Geto Heaven Part Two”
The 6th Sense (2000)
The Light (2000)
BUY Common – Like Water For ChocolateStream Here: