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The Boston Phoenix Growing Pains

Common learns to last

By Michael Endelman

APRIL 10, 2000:  At the ripe old age of 27, the MC formerly known as Common Sense (name reduced to Common by a litigious reggae band) is going through a premature midlife crisis. He hasn't been chasing after cheerleaders or buying pot from the adolescent video voyeur next door, but his fourth album, Like Water for Chocolate (MCA), documents an eventful year that began with a geographic shift: Common exchanged his long-time Windy City address for a Brooklyn postal code. He also ended his steady partnership with Chicago producer NO I.D. -- who's responsible for the stunning jazz textures on 1994s Resurrection (Relativity) -- to work with the Soulquarians, an all-star production crew consisting of Roots drummer Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson, neo-soulman D'Angelo, keyboardist James Poysner, and beatmaker Jay Dee.

In Boston for a publicity stint, Common admits that his surprising move was initially based on business concerns. "I wanted to go to New York to be in the mix of the industry, to be where people are making moves, you know? But eventually I started to enjoy New York and I really got inspiration from it." The result of this Big Apple love affair is that Like Water for Chocolate sounds more "East Coast" than his earlier efforts. That's partly due to the presence of high-profile cameos from MCs like Mos Def on "The Questions" and MC Lyte on "A Film Called (Pimp)" and the ubiquitous inclusion of a DJ Premier-produced banger ("The 6th Sense"). But it's also reflected in the way Common has assimilated hot topics of the New York backpacker scene -- a growing interest in the specifics of black nationalist politics ("A Song for Assata") and a thinly veiled Jay-Z and Puff Daddy dis track ("Dooinit") -- into his repertoire.

Common's decision to link up with ?uestlove (who snags executive-producer credits on the disc) was strictly an artistic decision. "I admired what the Roots had done before," he recalls, "but when I heard what ?uestlove did on the Roots' Things Fall Apart, I realized what a big vision he has. I was like, 'Yo, I want this brother to be overseeing my album.' "

What Thompson has done, both on the most recent Roots effort and as a key player on D'Angelo's Voodoo, is to forge a new sonic template for rap production. A sort of subliminal hip-hop, it discards the big hooks and recognizable samples of mainstream rap and R&B for a subtle texture of atmospheric keyboard moods, muted-horn lines, interlocking funk riffs, and sampled snippets of scratchy soul records -- all supported by ?uestlove's infallible bass thump and signature snare snap.

Common's mid-career changes came partly out of necessity, as his spotty third album (One Day It'll All Make Sense) was followed by a split with the now-defunct Relativity label. The intense pressure following that dissolution shaped Like Water for Chocolate's overall mood and theme. "It's about going through those growing pains and coming out free," he emphasizes, "it's about the freedom of expressing myself through the music and not really limiting myself to saying, 'Yo, I gotta prove this to the hip-hop audience, I gotta prove this to the Chicago ones, or prove this to ghetto niggas.' "

Those "growing pains" are quickly becoming an identifiable rap ailment: MCs who flourished in hip-hop's Golden Age (roughly '88-'92) have found their careers staggering rather than swaggering toward the 10-year mark. Fighting against obscurity and irrelevance, aging b-boys are grabbing at whatever will maintain their market share. Q-Tip's got a new jiggy ass-chasing persona; Run D.M.C.'s upcoming Crown Royal courts the rap-rock mooks who've flourished in their absence; the Jungle Brother's new V.I.P. is shameless raver candy. But whereas these attempts are various shades of disappointing and annoying, Like Water for Chocolate is the most satisfying and accomplished album of Common's career. And that's partly because of the changes he didn't make: his cool-headed flow and a biting battle mentality, his soft spot for crime narratives and earnest R&B-inflected soul searchers, and that keen observational eye all remain in force here.

"The Questions" has Common and fellow Crooklynite Mos Def throwing off lighthearted one-liners that ask, "If I'm an intellectual, why can't I be sexual?" and "Why did Dr. J shave his beard and moustache?" But when Mos Def queries, "How come the industry build careers that don't last?", he suggesting that Common (with four albums and eight years in the business under his belt) is a hip-hop anomaly: a gracefully aging b-boy whose future looks as promising as his past.

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