I started thinkin', how many souls hiphop has affected, how many dead folks this art resurrected, how many nations this culture connected.... I just want to innovate and stimulate minds. Travel the world and penetrate the times. Escape through rhythms in search of peace and wisdom. Blastin' smoke signals, let the streets know I'm with them."
--Common, "The 6th Sense"

Common has been hailed as a leader of the new school of politically and socially engaged rappers. To judge from his new CD, "Like Water for Chocolate," he's acutely aware of his cultural and political influence on hip-hop devotees-that is, his forbears. Common's last release, "One Day It'll All Make Sense," gave us a big taste of Common's innovative storytelling and aural sensibilities. With those skills, he could give us a message rap equal to the classic political joints like Public Enemy or KRS-One. But "Like Water" floats from beginning to end without letting on to how Common can sting.

This, I think, is a compliment. It speaks to a maturity in message rap that allows younger artists like Common to preach without overpowering young listeners in this apathetic age who might not take to the hot rage that schooled their older siblings.

"Time Travelin' (A Tribute to Fela)" picks up where acid jazz left off, only with a grittier edge and guitars that echo funk groups like Earth, Wind and Fire and the Ohio Players. This homage to the late African singer Fela Anakelapu Kuti might be the best groove on the album, featuring D'Angelo on keyboards.

Of course, any song with D'Angelo on the keys is as funky as you wanna be. "Cold Blooded" has a wonderfully menacing vibe that sounds like a Philly/Detroit twist on the classic West Coast grooves of the early '90s.

Most of the album has this feel. On "Geto Heaven," the use of live piano, guitars, and bass gives the tune not only a retro feel but might augur a growing "live" feel in hip-hop recording. If "music is a gift that is sacred" where one "can find god," shouldn't it be live, not the Memorex of constant sampling?

Other standouts on the CD are "A Film Called (Pimp)" and "Payback Is a Grandmother." The first is humorous, the second moralistic and surprising; both spoof Common's image as a "good" rapper, not a gangsta: The theme is revenge against someone who's stolen from you or yours.

Common also continues his critique of materialism, lamenting a world where men are judged "by what they make." He wants to use his music as a vehicle for enlightenment to fight an industry that "will make you lose intensity." "Through me Muhammad will ever speak," he rhymes in "The 6th Sense." "My music is the music for revolution--more than money saved, I want to save children.... Dealing with alcoholism, afrocentricity, a complex man, drawing off of simplicity."

This is a pretty good synopsis of how most political hip-hoppers see themselves. Too often, as on "Like Water," inanely bigoted remarks about homosexuals and the male anatomy in "Doonit" show the limits of emancipation in this overwhelmingly macho medium. And the question remains: Can rappers' faith and their political awareness translate into social engagement beyond their "droppin' science" on their CDs?

Common sidles up to the question in the haunting and politically charged "A Song for Assata." He calls for a "movement toward freedom for all those who have been oppressed and all those in the struggle." Describing the shooting, brutal imprisonment, amazing escape, and Cuban exile of Black Panther Assata Shakur, Common asks: "I wonder what would have happened if that would have been me?" Indeed, despite a keen political awareness among minority youths, thanks in some measure to two decades of hip-hop being the "CNN of the streets," it's fair to ask how many would put their body on the line for freedom and justice.

Just to make sure we get the point that hip-hop needs action as much as words, Common's father delivers a rhyme on the last track, "Pop's Rap III ... All my Children." Lonnie Lynn Sr. admonishes listeners that "true hiphop is just like the underground railroad"--in other words, it needs to be art, spirituality, and politics fused together in a way most young listeners have never experienced.

"Like Water for Chocolate" might eventually lead people to the postmodern Freedom Train, but for now it'll do as a great soundtrack for all of us struggling, each in our own way, to climb on board.

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