Rappers diversify. That’s how it’s been for a couple of decades now. Black artistry and ingenuity have always sold well, no matter the shape in which they manifest. It only makes sense rap’s global success translates outside of the music, too. Yet there’s plenty to be said about how one Lonnie Lynn Jr., better known as Common, has gone about expanding his portfolio.
Who would have thought the South Side Chicago native responsible for the anti-commodification rallying cry “I Used To Love H.E.R.” in 1994 would also bridge the Gap to the hood(ie) in 2006, keep us abreast of all things Microsoft Artificial Intelligence in 2015 and beyond, and play everything from an assassin to a cartoon yeti in over 50 movies? Whether Common’s multi-decade, multi-backslash career is viewed as versatile, dissonant, duplicitous, or just straight-up selling out at this point, there are still a handful of his albums that are crucial to the debate.
Arguably the most pivotal album in Common’s career was 2005’s Kanye West-architected collection Be, which helped his star ascend to the realm of TV ads and movie roles. But he wouldn’t have gotten to that point without the album that solidified his place at the forefront of the conscious rap movement five years earlier. When he released Like Water For Chocolate 20 years ago this Saturday, he was a much different Common. The Soulquarian-shaped LP gave him legitimacy then, and it’s a major reason why some listeners side-eye his later, more widespread popularity.
Common’s background only amplifies the seemingly contradictory nature of his career arc. The MC was raised on the South Side of Chicago in the Calumet Heights neighborhood, mostly by his mother. This is a stereotypical rags-to-riches rapper/black boy narrative on its surface, but he grew up closer to upper-middle class. Common’s mother, Mahalia Hines, is an educator who would later serve on the Chicago Board of Education. His father, Lonnie Lynn Sr., was an ABA player who often traveled due to the demanding schedule of a professional basketball player constantly being traded from team to team. Despite the rigors of his schedule and constant relocation, his father was present as much as possible before finally settling in Denver once his career was over.
Chicago, perennially a contender for the country’s murder capital for decades now, has never been a great city for black men’s vitality regardless of class. It was no different in the ’70s and ’80s when Common was growing up. His origins have always lent him some street cred despite not being involved in the street life himself. Let’s just say had he stayed with his father, it’s doubtful he would have gotten so far rapping about the mean streets of Denver, even if there are pockets of poor black folks everywhere. He has never relied heavily on gangster themes, but his proximity to them assigned him some authority, fortified the social concerns of his lyrics, and has enabled him to become somewhat synonymous with the city today.
More than any street bona fides, Chicago gave Common access to a city with a chip on its shoulder and a rich history to shape his identity as an artist. The New Yorker’s A.J. Liebling once dubbed Chicago “The Second City” based on his opinion of the city’s cultural inferiority to New York and its underlying desire to be number one. This was all too accurate when hip-hop was born in New York in the ’70s. As a young Common was growing up, Chicago was virtually nonexistent in hip-hop’s genesis and would remain a rap subplot until Kanye put the city on the mainstream map (ironically via the staunchly NYC label Roc-A-Fella Records).
Musically, Chicago had much more of a stronghold in other genres. From the father of modern Chicago blues, Muddy Waters, to the city’s role as a progenitor in house music, Chicago had a rich history of black music for Common to immerse himself in. The musical legacy, coupled with the city’s strong literary and poetic traditions, would be an incubator for Common’s spoken word leanings and comfort with rhyming over eclectic beats that borrow from many different genres of black music.
Common began rapping in a trio called CDR, which opened for N.W.A, Big Daddy Kane, and Kool G Rap among others before it dissolved in ’91. In 1992, then rapping solo under the name Common Sense, he dropped his debut album, Can I Borrow a Dollar? to scant attention. His sophomore effort, 1994’s Resurrection, also garnered little favor. Fittingly, on 1997’s One Day It’ll All Make Sense, things began to, well, make sense. The album didn’t do very well commercially or register with major critics, but fellow artists and producers took notice.
The most important of the producers that worked on that album would prove to be a young No I.D. The Chicago producer was able to draw great artists including Q-Tip, De La Soul, Lauryn Hill, and Erykah Badu to work on the album through his beats and Common’s strong, conscious lyrics. The most fruitful collaboration from One Day It’ll All Make Sense would be the third single, “All Night Long,” featuring Badu and produced by the Roots. This song brought Common into the nascent Soulquarian fold and set the stage for what would ultimately become Like Water For Chocolate, his major-label debut on MCA.
Everything came together on Like Water For Chocolate in a way that it never had for Common before. He had a major-label budget to work with, an incredible team of producers at the ready, an incisive pen arguably at its peak, and the perfect mix of mystery and respect to spark buzz. The album allowed him to maximize his reach without blowing him up enough to lose the essence of his persona.
Common got the phrase Like Water For Chocolate from Laura Esquivel’s 1989 novel of the same name, which was also adapted into a film by Alfonso Arau in 1992. The title of the novel comes from common Spanish expression — “como agua para chocolate” — which means that one’s emotions are on the verge of boiling over, just as hot chocolate is made with nearly boiling water in many parts of Mexico. It’s both an apt analogy for Common’s perspective on black American life, and the culmination of everything coming together before his biggest album yet.
The literary reference also provided a double meaning for the charged album cover photo, “1956 Alabama” by Gordon Parks. The image depicts a black woman dressed for church drinking from a “Colored Only” water fountain during the height of the Jim Crow South in Mobile, Alabama. Contrary to what our current president thinks, there’s never been a time when America was great for everyone. When you evoke the past of any race that isn’t white, there is bound to be pain and inequity. Specifically for black folks, American history includes a start in slavery and slowly “improves” to the present state of mass incarceration. Taking a step back makes a powerful statement about just how far we haven’t come.
Much like the Roots did with the harrowing 1960s cover photo of a black man and woman running from riot police in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn for 1999’s Things Fall Apart, Common used an image from Jim Crow Alabama to establish a reflective, somber tone before you even hear one song. Common’s first two album covers featured him enhanced with graphics. His third album cover featured him as a child with his mother. The departure of using the Parks photo for Like Water For Chocolate signaled an ambition and thematic seriousness that none of his previous albums possessed. You can’t choose a cover photo like this and step incorrect. Common certainly delivered on the artwork’s hinted promises.
Common’s lyrics marry the thematic elements and bolster the tone for the album. More on this album than any other, he solidifies himself as a formidable MC with intricate rhyme schemes, unforgiving metaphors, and harder timbre than on his previous efforts. There are no full feature rap verses on the first six tracks of the album; Common lays a lyrical foundation all his own. Particularly in the three-song run from “Heat” to “Dooinit” before the letup of the album’s second single “The Light,” Common comes out swinging with internal rhymes much more aggressive than on his previous outings, such as: “Fake niggas drown the deeper the verse gets/ Deep as a skinny girls cunt — I surface with the purpose.” His metaphorical references are just as harsh in this run, alluding to Marv Albert’s trial on felony charges of forcible sodomy, Bobby Brown and Whitney Houston’s volatile relationship, Gordon Parks’ powerful, dark photographic images, and a sprinkle of homophobic vitriol.
In the much more feature-heavy and conceptual middle run of the album from “The Questions” to “Nag Champa,” Common either holds his own against or bests Yaasin Bey (then Mos Def), an underrated rapper in J Dilla, Baatin and T3 of Slum Village, MC Lyte, Rahzel, and even Black Thought of the Roots. Though the album slows down and leans more neo-soul in this middle stretch, Common doesn’t sacrifice any lyrical content for concepts or form. “The Questions” finds Common and the Mighty Mos Def trading their usual verbosity to pose thought-provoking questions — like Common’s “What is paper to a nigga if the nigga don’t stack?” — that still take up only half of the 16 bars allotted for their verses.
Even in storytelling mode, regaling with tales of pimps and hoes on Madison Avenue in Chicago, Common doesn’t simplify his rhyme schemes. “Seen her on Madison where Vice Lords be travelin’/ And Chevy windows be rattlin’/ And badder than, any other broads that I’ve seen in this parts,” he raps on “A Film Called (PIMP).” Despite the song being strict in concept — PIMP standing for Person In Making Profit and likening pimps on street corners to record labels — both Common and MC Lyte come correct and maintain the lyrical density that characterizes the album.
There are no lyrical concessions in the home stretch of Like Water From Chocolate other than purposeful absences to let the hooks from Macy Gray and a pre-canceled Cee Lo Green breathe. Common’s verses become tighter, more condensed, employing two verses where there would have been three earlier in the album. This step back leads to a complete surrender of the reins to his father for “Pops Rap III,” which serves as a gentle, jazzy cooldown from the lyrical onslaught of the album up to that point.
Where Common and friends’ consistent lyrical prowess sets an even tone for the album, the production provides the variety that keeps things interesting. Though Like Water For Chocolate is included in the Soulquarian set of projects with Questlove named as the executive producer, it is truly a J Dilla-produced album. Most of the collection of songs was recorded in J Dilla’s basement studio in Detroit, and the Dilla Dawg himself has either sole or partial production credits on 11 of the album’s 16 tracks in addition to lyric credits on three songs.
Dilla’s imprint is all over this album. “Nag Champa” is named after the brand of incense Jay Dee used to burn in his basement studio for hours on end while making beats and running sessions as engineer. His production is unmistakable, even as he dialed back the swing and knock of the drums to give Common’s rhymes more room to register. Only J Dilla could have pulled off the subtle versatility to keep the album firmly rooted in hip-hop while encompassing funk, neo-soul, and R&B while also working alongside Roy Hargrove, Femi Kuti, and James Poyser for touches of jazz and non-Western music as well.
From that driving chicken grease chord on “Heat,” the album’s first proper track, to the deep bass groove of “Payback Is A Grandmother,” Jay Dee did the damn thing. Common can ride a beat with the best of them, but the natural swing from Dilla’s beats fits his rhymes like a glove. Where Common is at his most raw and dense early in the album, Dilla uses sparse but funky guitar licks and stabs that allow Com’s lyrics to weave in and out them and switch cadences when he feels. As the album slows toward the middle, the soundscapes spread out and swell up, peaking with hooks from Bilal and Jill Scott before easing back into Common’s verses. Altogether, Dilla’s far-seeing musical knowledge melded with Common’s multi-faceted Chicago influences and rich understanding of black music, creating quite the formidable sound.
Like Water For Chocolate was critically acclaimed. It earned Common his first placements on any year-end lists, and his first crack at the Billboard charts, peaking at #16 on the Billboard 200 and #5 on the R&B/Hip-Hop charts. “The Light” was nominated for a Grammy in the Best Rap Solo Performance category in 2001, his first. Among fans and the hip-hop community, he cemented a spot on the frontlines in the conscious wave against the full-scale commercialization of rap at the turn of the century. It’s this effort that still reverberates when questions about his credibility arise.
Like Water For Chocolate still rings true and had a lasting impact on Chicago hip-hop — helping create a lane for a newer wave out of Chicago, contemporary artists spitting substance like Saba, Noname, and Mick Jenkins. Though Common hasn’t quite had another album deftly strike the balance of popularity and authenticity like Like Water For Chocolate, its impact was felt — then, and now.
Say what you will about the movie roles, cringe-worthy TV commercials, the invite to Obama’s White House poetry night that inspired Fox News to laughably call him a “cop killer,” the Sesame Street cameo that earned him the moniker of “Elmo’s homey” from Jon Stewart on The Daily Show. The list goes on and on, possibly more than any other rapper with hands in multiple cookie jars, and it will probably continue. But it doesn’t matter what happens in the five years between now and when all the Be retrospectives are written, when there is a whole other conversation to be had about the next transformation Common underwent. None of that was a factor 20 years ago, and nothing can take away what Like Water For Chocolate was, and what it to this day.