15 Years Later, Common’s “The Light” Remains a Shining Example of Hip-Hop Love
On July 18, 2000, Common released “The Light,” and with it came one of Hip-Hop’s greatest love songs. Along with Black Star’s 1998 track “Brown Skin Lady” and The Roots’ breakout 1999 single “You Got Me,” “The Light” represented a focus on mutual respect, vulnerability, and a soulful approach to love that offset much of the imagery and content of mainstream Hip-Hop hits of the era. Lyrically, it was an unadulterated peek into a man’s emotionally exposed heart, while sonically it was a seamless combination of Bobby Caldwell and the Detroit Emeralds that elicits the instantaneous emotional response that only Jay Dee could conjure up. While not the first or last love song of Common’s career, “The Light” is mentioned in the same breath as hits like Method Man & Mary J. Blige’s “I’ll Be There for You/You’re All I Need To Get By” and “You Got Me” as indisputably some the greatest love songs in a genre often overlooked by mainstream society as a source of positivity, nourishment and, well, light. With the song, Common managed to share what Heads already knew, that Hip-Hop, at its foundation, is about nothing else if not love and unity.
The Chicago MC had already established himself as a masterful lyricist with three albums under his belt, but he unleashed something transcendent on this day, 15 years ago. As the lead single from his touchstone album Like Water for Chocolate, the song is a Jay Dee (a/k/a J Dilla)-produced, Grammy-nominated masterpiece in the form a poetically delivered love letter from one Soulquarian to another, but the song also became our love song to one another, one that resonated as powerfully as a musical backdrop to our pillow talk as it did on the street corners of cities across the country (and from “ghetto to coffee shop,” too). And, while Common has gone on to weave mainstream success into the tapestry of his incredible career, and despite winning an Oscar for another song entirely, “The Light” remains the song, for many.
A lyrical theme prevalent throughout the song is one that has long been articulated throughout history, that of the woman being the physical embodiment of nature, the divine, and the sacred. Common’s subject is one with the cosmos (“if heaven had a height, you would be that tall”), his surroundings (“For in these cold Chi night’s moon, you my light”), and the ultimate source of “the light” (“Granted we known each other for some time / It don’t take a whole day to recognize sunshine”).
Like Water for Chocolate could not have been a better home for “The Light.” In many ways, the album signaled Common’s shift as an underground MC with strictly boom-bap roots to a more experimental, soulfully driven artist. When he released his 1992 debut, Can I Borrow a Dollar?, he was still Common Sense, the 19-year-old lyricist featured in The Source‘s legendary “Unsigned Hype” column in 1991. Back then, he had a “distinct, squeaky but likable voice and impressive rhyme skills,” and looking back on the album, it is remarkable to see the stages of development that bring us to the Common of today. Much of the album’s artwork depicted Com Sense drinking 40-ounces of malt liquor and he rhymes frequently about drug use and sundry shenanigans. 1994’s aptly-titled Resurrection was the first sign of the bridge to what many call “conscious” Hip-Hop; No I.D.’s jazzy approach to beat making combined with the spoken-word nature of “Pop’s Rap” (the first of many tracks to feature Com’s father) and conceptually approached tracks like “I Used to Love H.E.R.” and “Chapter 13 (Rich Man Vs. Poor Man)” collided to form a more complete snapshot of Common Sense, the artist.
1997’s One Day It’ll All Make Sense was the last album he and No I.D. would work on until 2011’s The Dreamer/The Believer, and it was the first to feature Common, the father. The most soul-searching work of his first three LPs, the album was anchored by songs with titles like “Introspection,” “Retrospect for Life,” “G.O.D. (Gaining One’s Definition)” and “Reminding Me (Of Sef).” It was also a project on which the musical relationships with artists like Q-Tip, The Roots, and Erykah Badu would begin to forge and become stronger, and those musical relationships created the fertile crescent out of which the Soulquarians and “The Light” would grow. On “All Night Long,” Badu and Common share a duet produced by the Roots and although not a love song, the energies vibrating between the two manifested in this song are the same vibrations we have to thank for “The Light.”
Along with The Roots’ Things Fall Apart (1999), D’Angelo’s Voodoo (2000), and Badu’s Mama’s Gun (2000), Like Water for Chocolate was emblematic of the Soulquarian spin on Hip-Hop (despite being the only of the four not to go platinum), which appeared most prominently in the late ’90s and early aughts. Similar to the Native Tongues in concept (and roster), the Soulquarians grew out of a shared sensibility, both musically and philosophically, between artists like Questlove, J Dilla, and the Roots’ James Poyser. Eventually expanding to include Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Q-Tip, Badu, and others, the Soulquarians became the perfect fit for Common’s seemingly ever-growing ideals about self-expression. On March 28, 2000, Like Water for Chocolate was released, and Common achieved his greatest commercial success of his then eight-year career.
The album’s cover artwork, featuring a 1956 photograph of a Black woman in Alabama drinking from a “Coloreds Only” fountain, echoed the sentiment voiced in the cover artwork for Things Fall Apart, making it a visually striking album whose very cover captured the consciousness with which his music had come to be imbued. The album’s title, though inspired by a 1989 novel of the same name, served as a double entendre of sorts, one that perfectly expressed the photograph. Featuring Mos Def, MC Lyte, Bilal, Jill Scott, Femi Kuti, Slum Village, Cee-Lo, and others, Like Water for Chocolate is no doubt an amalgamation of the best possible kind; tracks like “Heat,” “The Questions,” “A Film Called (Pimp),” and “Thelonius” are straight-up Hip-Hop whereas “Time Travelin’ (A Tribute to Fela),” “Funky for You,” and “Nag Champa (Afrodisiac for the World)” are straight-up Hip-Hop mixed with a little something ethereal, other-worldly, and transcendent. It was that combination of qualities out of which “The Light” was born.
From a lyrical perspective, the song was raw (“Some niggas recognize the light but they can’t handle the glare”), unabashedly real (“I never call you my bitch or even my boo / There’s so much in a name and so much more in you”), and a road map to an emotional destination (“So I pray everyday more than anything, friends we’ll stay as we begin to lay this foundation for a family – love ain’t simple”). Common’s words allowed listeners to follow his own path to love, including the missteps along the way. “I know your heart is weathered by what studs did to you / I ain’t gon’ assault em cause I probably did it too,” he admits, reminding us that the ultimate destination is not always reached without mistakes. In speaking to his “queen,” he addresses union in a powerful way, acknowledging that a strong bond is one between partners (“I know the sex ain’t gon’ keep you, but as my equal is how I must treat you”). It’s a theme echoed by the song’s video, in which images of lush plants are interposed with images of a bare-skinned Badu, in what may be interpreted as a reference to Eve in the Garden of Eden. Images of butterflies, flowers, and fruit are spliced into the visuals to reinforce the connection between Woman and Nature. The ankh, an ancient Egyptian symbol (and a frequent accessory of Badu and others) also features prominently, due to its representing the concept of eternal life, which can only be reached with man and woman (the symbol of the ankh itself is the merging of the male and female symbols into one figure).
Common has since navigated a career from the backstreets of the Southside to the annals of Oscar history. From a “squeaky” 19-year-old to the voice behind an Academy-Award winning soundtrack, Common balances the boom-bap with the mainstream without selling either side short. With “The Light,” a love song was created that reverberated beyond Hip-Hop, one that has been mentioned in countless lists of the best love songs ever.