Black Steel

Photo by Christian Lantry

It’s a mystery how hip-hop and cinema, both such expressive art forms, have failed to find any real synergy despite their numerous collaborations. The problem is not one of quantity — it seems like every new film has a hip-hop soundtrack attached to it — but one of quality. No one — not filmmakers, not rappers — seems to understand how to translate hip-hop’s musical and verbal lyricism into cinema’s emotional breadth. Even filmmaker Jim Jarmusch, who brought aboard the Wu-Tang’s Rza to score his art-house flick Ghost Dog, misses the point. In his tale of samurai philosophy filtered through goodfella gangsterisms, Jarmusch’s penchant for contemplative silence is directly at odds with Rza’s gift for chaotic science, and the film’s dissonant score becomes little more than an empty trope to signify desolate ghetto landscapes.

Had he lived a longer, healthier life, Curtis Mayfield would have understood. Quincy Jones was more prolific, Isaac Hayes more dramatic, but no one quite had the knack for merging soul with the silver screen like Mayfield. Superfly is the obvious example, but an even better case was made in 1976’s Sparkle, an overlooked gem from the blaxploitation era that told the story of an aspiring all-female soul group during the late ’50s. Directed by Sam O’Steen and starring a young Irene Cara, Sparkle was remarkable for how it absorbed Mayfield’s songs and accentuated the stories of its characters. Whether it was the giddy excitement of the group’s fictional first hit, “Jump,” or Cara wooing a pre–Miami Vice Philip Michael Thomas with “Something He Can Feel,” Mayfield knew how to touch an audience with his music. Even if you missed the movie and only heard the soundtrack (sung by Aretha Franklin), you got a sense for the human nuances of the film and its story.

Apart from The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, the closest hip-hop has recently come to duplicating that feeling is Common’s new Like Water for Chocolate, an imaginary soundtrack searching for a movie. Like the Laura Esquivel novel of the same title, Like Water for Chocolate is both musically lyrical and cinematically dramatic, confirming that this Chicago MC has become hip-hop’s most vibrant documentarian of self-evolution. In his first three albums — Can I Borrow a Dollar? (1992), Resurrection (1994) and One Day It’ll All Make Sense (1997) — Common scripted a transformation from childhood to fatherhood, ’hood rat to hepcat. Like Water for Chocolate continues on to his next life stage, as soul seer, and with it Common realizes his most complete and mature artistic effort. Like the central character Tita de la Garza in Esquivel’s book, Common radiates an emotional resonance that’s intimately personal yet publicly accessible, whether joyous (the party jam “Funky for You”), serious (“A Song for Assata,” a dedication to exiled black activist Assata Shakur) or just plain furious (the diss-fest “Doonit”). As he beckons on the sublime “Afrodesiac for the World,” “Exciting/enlightening/ inviting/I’m writing shit that I feel/rap’s the black steel/in the hour of commotion.”

At his best he invokes vivid scenes in your mind, whether verbally storyboarding his humorous tale of crime and punishment, “Payback Is a Grandmother,” or emerging out of the hypnotic spirals of Femi Kuti’s Afro-beat riddims on “Time Travelin’.” Not surprisingly, Common owes a big debt of thanks to the Soulquarians production team (including the Ummah’s Jay Dee and the Roots’ ?uestlove), who create a rich and full sound that breathes life into whatever aural space it’s played in. Seeped in sweeping string melodies, flannel-warm keyboard harmonies, elastic bass lines and drums so crisp they crunch, the album funks hard on tracks like “Heat” and “The Light” yet flows easy like Sunday morning on the playful “The Questions” (featuring Mos Def) and the epic “Ghetto Heaven” (with D’Angelo).

Unfortunately, Common proves to be maddeningly inconsistent in his desire to establish a social agenda while still maintaining street cred; his blatant homo baiting and juvenile sexism stick out uncomfortably on an album with so much positivity. And, in relation to the scores of hip-hop’s failed cinematic ventures, it’s not that Common’s Like Water for Chocolate would actually make for a compelling screenplay. The challenges he faces — as an artist, as a father, as a conscious person — are not any more or less dramatic than those of a million others. But where a generation of hip-hop filmmakers has missed capturing the extraordinary beauty of ordinary life, Common offers us a look into his own with such evocative detail and animated emotion that it sets a standard for any aspiring artist to achieve — whether he wields a microphone or a camera.

COMMON | Like Water for Chocolate | MCA

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