‘Like Water for Chocolate’: Common’s Recipe for Progressive Hip-Hop

Like Water for Chocolate
28 March 2000

After three releases for the now defunct Relativity label, including Resurrection (1994) and One Day It’ll All Make Sense (1997), Like Water for Chocolate is Common’s first release for MCA and his imprint, Madame Zenobia. The latter is a reference from the 1974 Bill Cosby and Sidney Poitier film Uptown Saturday Night, the same film that inspired the Notorious B.I.G.’s moniker, “Biggie Smalls”. The recording opens with “Time Travelin'” a tribute to the late Nigerian musician Fela Kuti, which also features a cameo by Fela’s son and musician in his own right, Femi Kuti.

The song, like the recording’s “Heat”, and “Cold-Blooded”, which feature Rahzel and Black Thought of the Roots and trumpeter Roy Hargrove, reflects the current fascination among many post-soul artists with the AfroBeat groove that Fela initiated and his son Femi has furthered. D’Angelo’s Voodoo is rife with embryonic elements of that sound on tracks like “Left and Right”, “Chicken Grease”, and the more obvious “Africa”, but particularly the three-minute epilogue tagged at the end of “Greatdayinthemorning”. The title “Time Travelin'” also gives a nod to James Brown’s “Time Is Running Out”, from his Big Payback (1973) recording which, according to Thompson, was Brown’s own re-working of the grooves Fela introduced to him during the former’s visit to Nigeria in 1973.

The song’s connection to Brown not only suspends the distance imposed by tired “old-school/new-school” dichotomies — fissures that quality hip-hop sampling has ostensibly remedied, but that the recording and radio industries have vested economic interests in maintaining, but presents a Pan-African worldview, which ironically Brown himself embraced in the 1970s as African-American listeners largely rejected the music of Bob Marley. (Think of Brown’s role in the festivities surrounding the 1974 Ali-Forman fight in Zaire, captured on the film/soundtrack When We Were Kings, Mobuto’s politics notwithstanding.)T

his worldview is now being embraced by some post-soul artists in powerful musical ways the Lauren Hill/Steven Marley tribute project to Bob Marley immediately come to mind that transcend Kwaanza celebrations, bad imitations of Jamaican patois, Kente-cloth Rolexes, and ominous references to weed. The opening tracks of Like Water for Chocolate reflect Common’s desires not always realized to transcend the superficial boundaries of culture, masculinity and politics in an effort to build community. Musically this community in represented, beyond the aforementioned collaborations, with appearances, among others, by alto saxophonist/flutist Antonio Hart (from Hargrove’s best quintet, 1989-93), MC Lyte, Slum Village, Goodie Mob’s Cee-Lo (where’s the solo joint?), Mos Def and Vinia Mojica (Mos Def’s “Climb” and Tribe’s “Verses from the Abstract” from The Low End Theory).

The recording’s lead single “The 6th Sense”, produced by DJ Premier (still Primo after all these years), is the only track not produced from somebody connected to The Soulquarians. As classic as any Premier track, “The 6th Sense” is easily the best single, (“I Used to Love H.E.R.” notwithstanding) Common has ever released. While Common still gives love to the Chi-town spaces that are so integral to his music, Like Water for Chocolate was largely recorded in New York at the Electric Lady studio (Hendrix’s old haunt and increasingly Soulquarian central) and the famed D&D, where the Premier track was done. While Common still represents the Midwest (how many times can he mention 87th street?), “The 6th Sense”, like his classic cameo on De La Soul’s “The Bizness”, continues his courtship with New York hip-hop.

While Common traveled physically to NYC and aesthetically to Nigeria, he also found inspiration in Havana, Cuba, where exiled political icon Assata Shakur inspired the track “A Song from Assata”. In fact, Common traveled to Cuba to meet Shakur, whose comments on “freedom” are tagged at the end of the track. Common’s invoking of Assata Shakur is emblematic of his maturing political consciences, but also highlights what critic Richard Iton calls Common’s “Bitch/Queen” complex. Excepting the moments reserved for his mama and grand-mama (“Payback is a Grandmother”), most women in Common’s world are either tricks and chickenheads or Queen Mama Zulu. Nevertheless, Common’s referencing of Shakur and the safe haven that Castro’s Cuba provides for her (remember Fidel came “Home to Harlem” at the Theresa Hotel during his US visit in 1960), presents one of many alternative ways to view the Elian Gonzalez drama of these past few months.

In many regards, Common is still caught up in a the hyper-masculine universe that has historically pervaded much of hip-hop. The intense commercial competition that has become a recurring theme within hip-hop has caused many artists to embrace a “hardness” that is often antithetical to their natural artistic instincts; Common is not insulated from such posturing. While tracks like “Dooinit” and “Thelonious”, which features one of the recording’s best cameos by Slum Village, are in many ways classic hip-hop tracks too often lyrics like “Niggas don’t hate you / They ain’t paying you no attention / In a circle of faggots / Your name is mentioned” from “Dooinit” reveal a sensibility seemingly incongruent with the “high” art and progressive thought Common is increasingly aligned with.

In a recent appearance on BET Tonight with Dead Prez and Kevin Powell, Common related to host Tavis Smiley (who should have called in sick that night) his need to continue to connect with the folks as he states “Somedays I take the El to gel with the real world”, on “The 6th Sense”. While Common’s continued to commitment to the folks back on “87th” is laudable, his foundation is a good example of this — his homophobia is problematic. At the indispensable Okayplayer.com website that houses info on Common, D’Angelo, and The Roots, Common deflects charges of homophobia, initially exposed on “The Bizness” (“rappers take a dive like Greg Lougainis with his gay-ass”), sounding like one of those southern “rednecks” who deflect charges of racism by waxing fondly about Auntie’s peach cobbler.

But it’s on these same tracks and others that Common’s role as hip-hop’s conscience and harshest critic is most pronounced. Referencing photographer and film-maker Gordon Parks, Sr. (The original Shaft and his bio-pic The Learning Tree), whose photo “1956 Alabama” adorns the cover art for Like Water for Chocolate, on the track “Dooinit”, Common states, “That jiggy shit is over. The war is on, I only want to be a soldier / I’m holding on to a culture, focused like Gordon Parks when it’s sorta dark. For niggas that are flooded with ice, my thought’s the art.”

Common’s on-going critique of hip-hop is of course best represented on his classic track “I Used of Love H.E.R.” from his second release Resurrection. Common’s thinly veil attacks of “Gangsta” rap, led to a “penis-measuring” exchange with Ice-Cube, who called Common out (“All you suckers want to dis the Pacific / But you buster niggas never get specific / Used to love her mad cause we fucked / Her pussy whipped bitches with no common sense”) on Mack 10’s “Westside Slaughterhouse”. Common responded with the 12-inch “The Bitch in Yoo”, which was eventually pulled from Common’s One Day It’ll All Make Sense, when Nation of Islam head Minister Louis Farrakhan performed one of his many hip-hop mediation sessions, which of course probably didn’t include any conversations about the underlying misogyny, patriarchy, and homophobia of the exchange.

On Like Water for Chocolate, Common offers a broader critique of hip-hop and its complicity with capitalism’s basic impulses. “A Film Called (Pimp)”, finds Common rhetorically sparring with veteran MC Lyte in an exchange reminiscent of Lyte’s own classic underground duet with Positive K “I’m Not Having It”. Within this exchange prostitution or rather the relationship between “pimps and hos” becomes a larger metaphor for hip-hop artists and the hip-hop industry, in which a clear notion of just who is being “pimped” is placed in dispute. Playing the role of the pimp, Common opens the song with the line “You know, they call me a pimp / I’m a person that’s making profit / See I pimp internationally / I’m nationally recognized locally accepted / I pimp with the truth, that’s the only method”, as Lyte later retorts “Walking with this stick, holding his tip, looked like a Black Panther that was trying to pimp”.

Lyte’s response suggests that even politically “conscious” rappers (PE back in the day or Blackstar and Dead Prez now) are governed by the demands of the marketplace. Folks seem to forget that most of the members of PE were still holding on to their day jobs, even as It Takes a Nation of Millions… was changing the hip-hop landscape. Such a notion is further acknowledged as Lyte later remarks, “Nigga you must not know of me / I’m the mack here / Ought to have you ho for me / Pimp your punk ass / Have you write me poetry”, providing some context to the recent transformation of the Nas who appeared on Illmatic (a hip-hop classic despite it’s initially meager sales) and the one who recorded Nastradamus.

Ultimately the legitimate potential that hip-hop artist possess as “urban griots turned Gramscian intellectuals” is consistently challenged and undermined by the needs of a transnational economy (Common alludes to his transnational appeal throughout the project). Lyte suggest as much when she states. “I pimp hos, pimp pens, pimp rhythms, pimp flows, pimp men, pimp systems”. Ultimately, Common opts for the comforting spaces of one of the few institutions in which black men, in particular, still wield significant influence as he concludes, “What ever happened to loyalty / Don’t you want to become royalty / But you on this ho-asis and I really can’t reach you/ Fuck you then, I’m about to be a preacher”, bringing a host of alternative meanings to the phrase “the oldest profession”, especially when one considers the way some black ministers/leaders have pimped black misery into a boutique industry.

With the assistance of Premier and the Soulquarians, Like Water for Chocolate also marks the maturation of Common’s musical sensibilities. Throughout the recording Common acknowledges his “Soul” past as he states on “Geto Heaven Part Two” that “Donny Hath helped Lonnie find his path” referencing the genius and tragic life of Donny Hathaway (for the initiated, start with Hathaway’s Everything is Everything). The track which also features D’Angelo is a remake of the Family Stand classic “Ghetto Heaven” from their debut release Chain.

Despite their well known production efforts on Paula Abdul’s Promise of a New Day, in many regards the Family Stand, and I would add Loose Ends, are the god-parents to the neo-Soul/Post-Soul sound that Common embraces on this recording. Their esoteric Moon Over Scorpio (1991), which features the rant “Plantation Radio”, and Connected, with Jacci McGhee (Keith Sweat’s “Make it Last Forever” and Salt & Pepa’s “Express Yourself”) replacing “Mack Diva” Sandra St. Victor as lead vocalist are some of the obscure jewels the last decade. The D’Angelo/Common duet gives tribute to them as it lays a claim for higher forms of spirituality.

That “Soul” spirit is also found tracks like “The Light” which samples Bobby Caldwell’s “Open Your Eyes”, and “Funky for You”, which features Bilal Oliver, who does his own thing on the soundtrack for Love and Basketball, and Jill Scott in an old-school soul shout. (Check the live version of The Root’s “You Got Me” which was co-penned by Scott.) Like Water for Chocolate, is rounded out with a third appearance by Common’s dad Lonnie Lynn, Sr. While “Pop’s Rap II” from One Day It’ll All Make Sense challenged Jesse Jackson to a boxing match, Pop’s Rap III acknowledges the musical and social community that has claimed his son.

To some extent debates about whether Like Water for Chocolate is going to be classic or if recording has solidified Common’s presence within hip-hop upper echelon of lyricists are useless. What Common has done is simply produce a quality recording that challenges musical genres and intellectual rigidity and offers his recipe for progressive music.