When the opportunity to write about my favorite album was first presented to me, I immediately started rummaging through my mental catalogue of classic hip-hop, jazz, R&B, reggae, and soul records. Several immediately came to mind: Nas’ Illmatic, Erykah Badu’s Mama’s Gun, Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On?, John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, and Bob Marley’s Exodus, to name a few. Although I regard each of these as brilliant albums worthy of the critical and commercial success that they received, I knew that none of these was my favorite. I then realized that the problem was my criterion. To me, a favorite album isn’t necessarily the best album in the collection. A favorite album is the one that you wrap yourself in when you’re feeling happy, sad, angry, lonely, or nostalgic. A favorite album is the one that you feel personally connected to in ways that are difficult to explain. For me, that album is Common’s Like Water For Chocolate.
While many people would argue that Like Water For Chocolate isn’t even Common’s best work, much less an album worthy of “favorite” status, I can’t imagine any artistic effort more important than this one. Unlike most hip-hop artists, Common, has ridden an amazing course of artistic and personal development that is reflected in his work. From the playful, malt liquor drinking, pork chop eating young buck on Can I Borrow a Dollar?, to the knowledge dropping b-boy on Resurrection, to the spiritually minded, mature father-to-be on One Day It Will All Make Sense, Common always returned to us different and better. But unlike the disingenuous, profit-motivated metamorphoses of artists like Hammer, Vanilla Ice, Pink, Everlast, or Christina Aguilera, Common’s personal transformations were real. Or perhaps they seemed real to me because Common’s developmental trajectory mirrored that of my own.
As Common openly wrestled with questions about God, relationships, and the hood, I was a teenager struggling to make sense of the world on my own terms as well. While Common was deciding between Christianity and Islam (“G.O.D.: Gaining One’s Definition”), I was a devoted member of the Ansaaru Allah cult. As Common was forsaking the trappings of ghetto-fabulousness for the boho scene, I too was seduced by the aesthetic allure of sarongs, braids, dreadlocks, and the promise of “real” hip-hop. Common and I were growing up together, and his CDs were our sonic photo album.
When I purchased Like Water For Chocolate in March of 2000, I was worried that, like many childhood friends, Common and I had finally grown apart. I was no longer infatuated with the pseudo-conscious, ultra-bourgeois boho scene, I had become an atheist, and I had no idea where Common was coming from since he hadn’t released an album in three years. I popped the disc into my car changer with great apprehension. Would this be the album that pushes us apart? A few seconds later, the album’s first track, “Time Travelin’ (Tribute to Fela)”, started to play. I was immediately mesmerized by the Afrobeat rhythms of Femi Kuti, son of legendary Nigerian musician Fela Kuti. Any remaining doubt was erased when C to the O started rhyming: “Souls get, found and lost at the roads they cross/ Many paid dues, but few knew the costs/ I ran through the Moss like Randy/ Touchin’ down wit God, close friends, and family/ Recognize the voice in the wilderness/ Com Sense, ’92 and I’m still in this.” It was like we never left.
One of the beautiful things about Like Water For Chocolate is that we can see how Common developed a more mature understanding of the world. Like me, Common was now looking at the world through intensely critical eyes. While he didn’t share my cynicism entirely, Common was no longer willing to make a fetish out of the “conscious hip-hop” aesthetic. Instead, on tracks like “The Questions” featuring Mos Def, he identifies its limitations and transparencies (“Cause you answer the phone ‘peace’ do that mean that you not a freak?”). On “The 6th Sense” featuring Bilal, Common rips a Premo beat to shreds as he builds on the constant struggle between righteousness and temptation: “Dealin’ with alcoholism and Afrocentricity/ A complex man drawin’ off simplicity/ Reality is friskin’ me/ This industry will make you lose intensity.” On “Nag Champa”, we see a Common who is deeply spiritual but no longer looking to the sky for help: “Picked up a fallen angel on the path that I MC/ Familiar voice, come to find out the angel was me/ Some say ‘you changin’ Rashid’/ Times are/ we still close/ I rhyme far/AWAY.”
Even before his now dead fling with boho goddess Erykah Badu became public, Common’s willingness to talk about relationships hinted to us that he was in love. On “The Light”, his second classic single (“I Used To Love H.E.R.” being the first, of course), Common writes a love letter to Ms. Badu that lets her put those heavy bags down for a New York minute: “Plus you ship-hop when it’s time to/ Thinkin’ you fresh, suggestin’ beats I should rhyme to/ At times when I’m lost I try to find you/ You know to give me space when it’s time to/ My heart’s dictionary defines you, as love and happiness/ Truthfully it’s hard tryin’ to practice abstinence.” On “Ghetto Heaven”, he gets even realer: “Lookin’ for a love throughout the ghetto/ Young girls is thick, righteousness is narrow.” I feel you, homie.
The album’s most powerful song was the amazing “Song For Assata”, featuring Cee-Lo. Clearly affected by his trip to Cuba and his meeting with political prisoner Assata Shakur, Common brilliantly captured the beauty and emotion of Shakur’s autobiography by using the book’s own words. At the song’s end, we are given the privilege of hearing Shakur herself, as she talks about freedom: “Freedom! You askin’ me about freedom. Askin’ me about freedom? I’ll be honest with you. I know a whole lot more about what freedom isn’t than about what it is, cause I’ve never been free. I can only share my vision with you of the future, about what freedom is. Uhh, the way I see it, freedom is is the right to grow, is the right to blossom. Freedom is is the right to be yo’self, to be who you are, to be who you wanna be, to do what you wanna do.” I was moved to tears.
Like Water For Chocolate represented a watershed moment in both of our lives. We had ventured out into the world for a few years and returned to each other as changed human beings. We were no longer the shamelessly optimistic young brothers trying to explain an imperfect world while looking for the perfect one. We had lived a little, seen a little, and loved a little. We returned home in March of 2000 as adults. We were no longer optimistic, but hopeful. We understood that the only thing perfect about the world was its contradictions.
Common and I have since grown apart. After 50 or 60 desperate spins of his most recent project, Electric Circus, I had to accept that we had finally moved in different directions. I no longer felt like I could have written his songs myself. His struggles, beliefs, and musical tastes were no longer mine. I had to let go. But when I pop Like Water For Chocolate back into my car changer, none of that matters. I just close my eyes and relive the words, the feelings, and the changes that made our ride so incredible. Thanks, Com.