Like Water For Chocolate; 20 Years Later
(repost from 3/24/2020 from 3300+ Climbing)
Formally known as Common Sense, the Chicago MC we know today as the voice of NBA All-Star Weekend and Microsoft commercials, was at one point a regular underground rapper. After 3 albums, a beef with Ice Cube, and meshing into the growing Soulquarians collective, Common Sense was just Common, a rapper with all the potential in the world now backed by MCA Records after years of working with the now-defunct underground staple Relativity Records. Recorded across 1999, at the guidance of a young upstart Detroit producer named Jay Dee and the budding mastermind Questlove, Like Water For Chocolate was starting to take form. According to Questlove himself, it was during the creation of a song for this album he realized what would eventually be named the Soulquarian (or neo-soul movement) was taking full form.
“By mid ’99 we were in full swing….we were working on Common’s Like Water for Chocolate when we came up with this lethal jam. It was so good that D (D’Angelo) pulled me to the side and said ‘I ain’t no Indian giver…but I ain’t lettin’ Com walk off with this song”. He called me 3 times that morning begging to ask Com for that track. Com agreed, and we named it “Chicken Grease”. — Questlove
Within the creation of each other’s songs, whole albums were being conceptualized and birthed. The legend goes that in exchange for what would become “Chicken Grease”, Common asked for “Geto Heaven Pt. 2” from D’Angelo. Whether Macy Gray was already in place or if it was just a beat, it’s still a major moment and eye-opener to just how tightly knit the Soulquarians were. A group consisting of The Roots, Common, J Dilla, Erykah Badu, Talib Kweli, Mos Def, Roy Hargrove, Q-Tip, Bilal, and Pino Palladino, among more with more minor affiliations like Kanye West and Jill Scott defined a section of not just hip-hop, but music as a whole, that was going underserved. It was fresh, soulful, complex, and deeply indebted to its ancestors all at the same time. Enter “Time Travelin’ (A Tribute To Fela)”, the intro into the scene created by these incense lighting and mesh shirt-wearing musicians. Opening with a soft horn and African chants, leading into bouncing drums and a rainforest of instruments, the world melts. As Common checks in the instrumental becomes more full, with his voice being muffled and augmented from its usual wood grain smoothness to prepare you for what’s to come. This face-first dive into an alternate sonic landscape from the one hip-hop normally focuses on is a shock, and one that would be repeated later by Kendrick Lamar on “Wesley’s Theory”, a G-Funk and jazz dipped version of an aggressively aware MC trying to change the world. As intriguing as “Time Travelin’” is, the true intro to the record comes next with “Heat”. As Dilla hops in to help on the hook and ad-libs, it shows why Jay Dee would eventually become a great rapper. He feels at home in his own jerky universe of beats. That swing that radiated from his unquantized instrumentals is something we haven’t seen before him or done quite the same way since.
After years of sharpening his blade in the basements of Detroit, J crafted the Fan-tas-tic album series for Slum Village almost completely by himself. It’s also impossible to state the effect of Slum Village’s rapping style influenced Com during these years. Though Vol. 2 wouldn’t be released until after Like Water, it’s creation spawned from years earlier. Nobody besides the Slum Village crew had gone over Dilla beats for a whole album so adapting T3 and Baatin’s rapping styles were for survival. His elastic and jittering flow accompanied by a slew of “uh”s and “oooh”’s were essential to making the record work, though at times it seems like he came in the booth unprepared rather than doing it as an artistic decision. The collab “Thelonious” was even featured on both records due to the artists’ friendship with one another. Dilla’s trial with SV also led to the forming of The Ummah, a production trio consisting of himself, Q-Tip and Ali Shaheed Muhammed who as a trio thier most notable work came from doing the heavy lifting on A Tribe Called Quest’s The Love Movement in ’98. After laboring out that LP, Jay Dee and Common (now venturing outside of his typical go-to producer No ID) it’s obvious they both reached new heights after years of honing in on their styles without one another. Across the album they never really develop any new versions of themselves, just better versions. It’s the difference between being an All-Star player, and an All NBA player. Not bending into new sounds but digging deeper trying to discover a new layer of the one you currently reside in is the road less traveled in hip-hop. The commonality across those who have long careers is the constant change and experimentation outside of themselves. Where would LL have been without “I Need Love”, or Kanye West without 808’s & Heartbreak. Though Common would later depart from his funk and soul wrapped production on his next record, him digging to perfect and create new terrain in the lane forged by A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul is an admirable one, which also yielded one of the best albums of the millennium. The sound of this album today is still a culture shock, very much equal to that of Kendrick’s To Pimp A Butterfly that for more ways than one is the rightful heir of Like Water.
Dilla and Common together touched rare air, with dense production and an even denser lyrical character leading the way. The middle of the album is a whirlwind of gender politics, street bravado, and Hotep rhetoric (both the good and bad sides of it) while featuring rare guest spots from MC Lyte, Mos Def and DJ Premier, leading into an all-time closing section for a record, regardless of genre. “Geto Heaven Pt. 2”, “A Song For Assata” and “Pop’s Rap Pt. 3” aren’t just the most lively production-wise with live instruments taking the place of computerized and sampled versions that pushed the majority of the LP but they peak in their ability to encompass social commentary on the state of hip-hop, the common man, the rebellious spirit, and the praising of the ancestors while giving a glimpse into the future of this thing we call hip-hop.
Like Water still holds truest in its final chapter, sealed off by spoken word raps from Commons father. Catching the spirit of Gil Scott-Heron, his pops reveals his admiration for his son and his musically inclined friends on the best installation of the “Pops Rap” song series. Among the ending suit is “A Song For Assata” which was inspired by Common’s real-life admiration for Assata Shakur, leading to him visiting her while she remained a political refugee in Cuba post her 1979 prison break. The last piece of the record features a live recording of Assata speaking on what freedom is, from that same trip. Rarely do hip-hop albums come entrenched in such real history, mostly being surrounded with an air of artificial hype caused by beef, off-record drama, and a good marketing team. But that’s the exact kind of thing the Soulquarians wanted to avoid, which is why Common fit in so calmly. Looking to turn a new leaf after his famous sit down with Ice Cube and the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan, the New York scene accepted him with open arms.
Two decades have passed since the release of Like Water, and still it’s hard to place its importance in rap history. It was something created in such an isolated corner of hip-hop that few would truly latch on to it and understand it fully. But for those that did they were the admiration on their sleeve. In recent years Royce Da 5’9’s The Allegory, Kendrick’s To Pimp A Butterfly, and Blu’s Good To Be Home hold DNA strands of Common’s magnum opus (and the first of 2 classic albums in his catalog), though never openly admitted. But that place in history is fitting. As long as music has been around the mainstream or future artists borrow concepts from the underground, waters them down, never to fully shine the light on where the ideas came from. Though during the Soulquarian Era nearly every act received more success than previously in their entire careers, they still have yet to fully receive their flowers. So for today we look back and admire Common as one of the best rappers of all time, the late J Dilla as one of the faces cemented on a beatmakers Mt. Rushmore, and this album, as a masterpiece.
Best Song: “Funky For You”
Best Feature: MC Lyte on “A Film Called Pimp”
Best Beat: “The Light”
Best Verse: Verse 2 on “A Song For Assata”