For his fourth album, “Like Water for Chocolate,” the rapper-composer Common worked with a powerful team of musicians known as the Soulquarians, whose members were household names where black music ruled. Comprising D’Angelo, J Dilla (billed here as Jay Dee), bassist Pino Palladino, keyboardist James Poyser, Roots’ drummer Questlove and others, the band provided the supple, varied music under Common’s socially conscious tales. Much like D’Angelo’s “Voodoo,” recorded at the same studio – New York’s Electric Lady – with the same group of musicians at about the same time, “Like Water for Chocolate” was a landmark album that set its own direction. It was released in 2000.
The album established a palette that went beyond the conventions of hip-hop without completely disregarding the form. On “Time Travelin’ (Tribute to Fela),” the warm opening cut, jazz trumpeter Roy Hargrove played above Palladino’s thumping bass until Common entered subtly with a narrative that revealed a state of mind: committed to the soothing power of music, but well aware of social injustice and the contradictions in religious faith. Following a brief break, the music veered away from understated funk toward Afrobeat – hence the Fela Kuti name check in the title. It flowed into “Heat,” which sampled a song by Tony Allen, Kuti’s long-time drummer. “Dooinit” rode on a fat funk bass line, piano chords and an insistent beat on a high hat while “Cold Blooded” was be-bop hip-hop with Hargrove on trumpet. “The Questions” rolled along on down-tempo funk that flowed like a summer breeze, and “The Light” was a sweet love song with Common rapping between vocal samples from Bobby Caldwell’s “Open Your Eyes.”
Throughout the album, Common moved fluidly between perspectives that were earthy and exalted, as if to say that for him to process what he observed required he have many minds. In “Geto Heaven Part Two,” which was intended for D’Angelo’s “Voodoo” disc, Common rapped over D’Angelo’s groove to espouse independence for women: “Love, your happiness doesn’t begin with a man/Strong woman, why should you depend on a man?” In “Heat,” Common declared he saw larger, more sublime issues than those addressed by other rappers who “drown the deeper the verse gets.” Positivity and the assertion of will is a theme of “The 6th Sense”: “I just want to innovate and stimulate minds/Travel the world and penetrate the times/Escape through rhythms in search of peace and wisdom.”
Common brought in a variety of guests who added their distinctive voices to the album. Bilal sang on two tracks including the infectious “Funky for You,” which also featured Jill Scott. Mos Def provided the easy-going voice for “The Questions.” J Dilla’s Slum Village gave an edge to “Thelonious.”
Common made clear that personal politics would inform “Like Water for Chocolate” with its cover – a Gordon Parks photo of a “colored only” water fountain. “A Song for Assata” is Common’s interpretation of the case of Assata Shakur, a member of the Black Panthers who also was known as JoAnne Chesimard and remains on the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorists List in conjunction with her role in the 1973 killing of a New Jersey state trooper. (She escaped prison and in 1984 fled to Cuba, where she remains.) Common’s position is unambiguous: he believes Shakur was innocent of the charges. “They fabricated cases, hoping one would stick/And said she robbed places that didn't exist,” he rapped.
“Like Water for Chocolate” elevated Common’s status as a rapper, composer and mainstream media personality. He’s been nominated for several Grammys, winning twice – for his contribution to Erykah Badu’s “Love of My Life” in 2003 and with Kanye West in 2008 for “Southside.” In 2015, he won an Oscar for Best Original Song for “Glory,” written with John Legend and Rhymefest for the film “Selma.” With “Like Water for Chocolate,” Common and his group of superb musicians created a deeply affecting album that blended seamlessly Afrocentric political messaging and a distinctive sound that drew from a deep well of black music.