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Common - Like Water For Chocolate

Like Water For Chocolate opens with the breath-taking ‘Time Travellin (A Tribute To Fela)', after which come the excellent ‘Heat’ and ‘Cold Blooded’. While all songs in that triptych showcase a compelling flow anchored by a great rhyme scheme, the opener also displays the emcee’s gift of truth-conveying through proverbs and the painting of grand, vivid images which is also found later in the album. The latter device is present in not only the lyrics but also some of the music: those instrumental pieces which evoke bold portraits of African culture.

This album, Common’s fourth, features guests on many tracks, including a cameo by Black Thought. Although it is unspectacular, the performance of the Philadelphian wordsmith, which is spent spitting the refrain of ‘Cold Blooded’, provokes the wish that he could contribute much more to this album, especially considering Black Thought’s many great turns on 1999s Things Fall Apart and other albums by The Roots. Another appearance on ‘Cold Blooded’ is that of Roy Hargrove, whose contribution is an example of the depth and beauty of some of the music accompanying even the harder lyrical material.

On the heels of the first three tracks is ‘Dooinit’, on which Common does more than just represent his part of town. He declares, “The world is my section/To take it, you gotta use aggression” and “That jiggy s*** is over/The war is on”. Coming out of the last  century with guns blazing, but importantly not doing so literally – or pretending to –like so many hip-hop artists, Common seemingly attacked brash materialism and did much to discredit the idea that equates toughness  with physical violence, although this track and others in his body of work try to impress upon the audience that he was not afraid to engage in that, at least in some form, if necessary. However, on this album he never exactly adopts a typical ‘gangsta’ posture, although he did sample what sounds like a gangster film on his 1997 album, One Day It’ll All Make Sense. Instead, he styles himself as the “Morpheus of this hip-hop matrix/Exposing fake s***”

On ‘The Light’, Common states, “It don’t take a whole day to recognize sunshine”. Likewise, it probably does not take a full listen to recognize that this album is a good one; that is pretty clear by the end of the release’s first five songs. However, a great first quarter, although making a performance good at least, does not guarantee that it will be a classic overall. ‘Funky For You’ is, in contrast to its antecedents on this album, terrible. Both the track in general and the use of strange words like ‘uh’ and ‘ooh’ at the end of lines drag on for far too long. Thankfully, the song has a decent instrumental, but the song should probably never have been allowed on the album.

As for the seventh track, ‘The Questions’, some of its inquiries are genuinely thought-provoking, while others are slightly amusing. However, even if the song stayed for the most-part within the framework of asking questions, its flow could be much better, as demonstrated by The Roots in the song ‘Dear God 2.0’. The wall of voices at the end of ‘The Questions’ is great but there are arguably more effective ways it could be used. For example, it might be utilized in a different context to convey a frightening sense of chaos.

After three of the five weakest tracks on the album comes ‘The 6th Sense’, complete with a great instrumental by DJ Premier and this brilliant putdown: “Ran so far from the streets that you can’t come back/You trippin’ with nowhere to unpack”. These are accompanied by several or perhaps many great lines, as well as other lyrical parts that are not so great on their own but when put together help create a brilliant tapestry. The song demonstrates that simplicity sometimes hits harder. Common’s flow, which is basic in comparison to the collection’s early tracks, makes the song’s words more impactful because they get through to the listener more easily. Based on this, simplicity could arguably be seen as an artistic strength rather than a weakness.

Following ‘The 6th Sense’, the quality of material varies. First up is the  strange, excessively long ‘A Film Called (Pimp)’ and its bizarre prelude at the end of the previous track. After track eleven, ‘Nag Champa’ (is the largely uninteresting ‘Thelonius’, with its particularly dull first verse and chorus, and the quite compelling narrative ‘Payback is a Grandmother’. The next song, ‘Geto Heaven, Pt. 2’ displays another load of great lyrical pictures, even though much of it is seemingly derivative of biblical imagery rather than being completely original.

The beautiful-sounding ‘Song for Assata’ features a story that is more riveting than ‘Payback..’ and possibly on a par with Common’s ‘Retrospect for Life’ from One Day It’ll All Make Sense. Even if its chorus is possibly too corny and its beat is not always a fitting backing for its sometimes-dark subject matter, ‘Song for Assata’ would make an interesting ending to Like Water for Chocolate. It renders the tedious piece ‘Pop’s Rap III…All My Children’ an arguably extraneous conclusion, although that album closer does include the clever line, ‘Are you mankind, or kind of a man?’

On the ninth track, Common describes himself as a “complex man”, and some might say that this album, and Common’s catalogue of music in general, display a personality which features contradictions, as the man, starring as protagonist, spreading love and freedom, and the antagonist with fake playas and gangstas in his lyrical crosshairs, but never wishing to be the villain, tries to keep it positive but often does that which might be viewed as negative. Still, in spite of or maybe even because of this, the album’s vision is brilliant in its breadth, and possibly in its overall quality, though the collection’s status as a hip-hop classic is greatly threatened by its failings and blunders.

Like Water For Chocolate is available from Amazon and iTunes.

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