mensah demary’s previous Liner Notes columns can be found here.
In 2000, during my first year in college, something rotated deep within my blood. I imagined it as a black rock, a piece of obsidian spinning like a planet. I didn’t have a name for it at the time. It had the weight and texture of grief, but anger was pent up inside the stone. My best friend had died in January, consumed by a fire that could’ve been prevented. The following months, I felt the obsidian shift inside whenever I walked around Temple University’s main North Philadelphia campus, where I skipped classes and sat in front of a colorful “fishbowl” iMac, typing bad poetry about how much I loved this older woman from Washington, DC. These were the only tools I had to defend myself against the obsidian. Even if I didn’t have my best friend, I still had poetry and love.
A few years prior, my oldest brother had introduced me to the Chicago emcee Common, sometime around the release of his third album One Day It’ll All Make Sense. Older siblings have a way of knowing the signs, the symptoms, of a previous emotional entanglement they once endured, now playing out through their younger brother or sister. Rage is often misinterpreted as wearing one’s heart on one’s sleeve. Rage is vulnerability, destabilized. My brother suggested I listen to Common because he knew I had an ear for lyricism, for poetry, and because, I suspect, he knew I was already angry. Even while my best friend was still alive.
That’s not to say that Common’s lyrics made me less angry. They did, however, give me a vocabulary for that thing when a person seems lost, and allows himself to be lost. In that vein, Common rapped about an essayistic life: uncertain, probing, in search of answers I took to his discography in earnest. Back to his second album, the classic Resurrection. Forward to One Day It’ll All Make Sense. Utterly lost in my feelings on that college campus, I went to the record store (RIP) and bought Like Water for Chocolate.
Afrobeat legend and black president Fela Kuti bookends the album: a tribute “Time Travelin’” opens the album, with Femi Kuti as a performer, and “Pop’s Rap III…All My Children” contains an interpolation of Fela’s “Water Get No Enemy.” The album cover is a Gordon Parks photo taken in Mobile, Alabama, circa 1956. The album, in whole, is as unapologetically black as Yasiin Bey’s Black on Both Sides. Where Yasiin Bey tended to stretch outward with his lyrics, like tendrils attempting to attach and connect with the surrounding world, Common was known as an introspective rapper, someone whose lyrics felt the surrounding world as matter of maintaining his balance, like a man dragging his hand along a wall as he walked down a dark corridor.
Creatively, Common was perhaps in search of a new direction. The sound of Like Water for Chocolate contains a warmth found in the organic sampling and instrumentation of Jay Dee, ?uestlove, and James Poyser, the collaborative group once known as the Soulquarians. This sound, used successfully in D’Angelo’s Voodoo, and Erkyah Badu’s Mama’s Gun, was often attributed as the birth of the sub-genre “Neo Soul.” (One can argue that Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite, D’Angelo’s debut Brown Sugar, and Erykah’s first album Baduizm are the actual predecessors to Neo Soul. No matter.)
Jay Dee—J Dilla, RIP—left his trademark production style on LWFC: the soft, almost irrelevant (drums behind the soul sample chopped and rearranged into a unique, backpacker beat. This style was evident in the album’s hit single, “The Light.” The woman from DC and I were maudlin with our affection, overly-dramatic in how we loved one another, and how we positioned our relationship within each other’s lives. In other words, listening to “The Light” became an experience for us.
So when Common rapped “Love has no limit/let’s spend a slow forever,” a part of us wanted to believe a slow forever was possible, feasible. “The Light” and its video, complete with a bohemian backdrop of aloe plants, and lit incense, brought forth an aesthetic, a language, for a kind of relationship I didn’t know I wanted until it was presented to me. This was my first exposure to and consideration of a creative couple, and how sometimes it’s easier to build an artifice of a loving, creative relationship as a matter of self-delusion, or maybe to stave off reality. We were never going to make it. But we had a soundtrack, at least.
In a 2006 interview with Fader, almost a year after Jay Dee’s death, Common said: “When I was working on Like Water for Chocolate I would go to Detroit like two to three times a month. When we would go to Jay Dee’s basement we would always burn nag champa incense, that’s where I got that title from. I was listening to Slum Village a lot, so I was influenced by them. With ‘Nag Champa,’ which was either the first or the second song for Like Water for Chocolate, we had it for a long time with no chorus. We kept trying but there wasn’t nothing good coming out. I took T3 (of Slum Village) and them to the studio to work with me on the chorus; T3 started chanting something, he didn’t finish, but he had a little idea. Jay Dee heard and started really singing it and got it together. Jay had an incredible voice-he actually was going to do a singing album. We used to talk about that when he would stay in LA.” [Italics mine.]
Common was at his most poetic, and most essayistic, in “Nag Champa,” with verses such as “If you’re not gonna respect self/at least respect the heritage/affected lives is where the wealth and merit is” and “Picked up a fallen angel on the path that I emcee/familiar voice/come to find out the angel was me.” The fallen angel verse suggested that Common picked up, and saved, himself. Why he fell—the imagery of Lucifer is obvious—in the first place always eluded me, but I knew I was falling. I left New Jersey for a summer in DC before the start of my sophomore year. It would be two years before I went back home, back to college. I was falling and I hid the descent in poetry, in the artifice of love. There is no privilege of beauty in being a wayward young adult, not when you’re black. An essayistic life for someone like me is a dangerous life.
Still, there was solace found in Like Water for Chocolate. Poetry is less about the words, and more about the feelings they evoke. Poetry is the language in between words, the breaths between sentences. The word depression, and its clinical diagnosis, which haunts me to this day, was not in my vocabulary in 2000. I was grieving, yes. My best friend was gone, but I didn’t mourn him so much as I centered myself in the middle of his passing. He went home, but I felt sorry for myself.
I was mortal. I was going to die. I could die at any moment, for any reason, such as a faulty sprinkler system in a decrepit dorm building. I wanted to write for a living; there are few desires in this world as potentially perilous as “I wanna be a poet.” An already introspective kid and teenager, silent and unsure, I turned inward and fell into myself. Like Water for Chocolate gave me a necessary vocabulary but, in reality, I rarely play the album these days. It reminds me of my dead best friend, and the woman I betrayed and left in DC. I can never make it right with her, and it is unlikely I’ll ever see John again.
mensah demary is editor in chief of Specter Magazine and a columnist for Fourculture Magazine. His fiction and nonfiction has appeared in Metazen, Little Fiction, PANK, Thought Catalog, and elsewhere. Originally from New Jersey, he currently lives and writes in Brooklyn. Find him on Twitter @mensah4000.