Thursday, October 6, 2011

October 6: Common, "The Light"

Artist: Common
Song: "The Light"
Album: Like Water For Chocolate
Year: 2000

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Over the entire course of recorded history, there may be no other genre that seems as constantly attacked for its content than that of the world of hip-hop music.  Whether it is for the overall tone of the songs, the lyrics found within, or the personas that are presented through its most commercially successful performers, it seems that there is almost always some aspect of the hip-hop community that is "on trial" within the mass media.  However, as is the case with every negative situation, there have always been hip-hop artists that made it their goal to provide an alternative to the mainstream hip-hop sound, and it is in this "underground" where some of the finest moments in the history of the genre can be found.  Over the past decade, the rise of positive or "conscious" hip-hop music has been one of the most refreshing parts of the genre, and few artists have risen higher than the man known as Common.  Bringing a dynamic lyrical approach that remains far beyond a majority of his peers, alongside an ever-shifting mix of funk, blues, soul, and r&b samples, the songs of Common stand as some of the finest and most enjoyable of the genre's past decade.  Though he rarely records tracks that are anything less than superb, there is no question that he reached his creative apex on his 2000 album, Like Water For Chocolate.  The album is filled with wonderfully original songs and rhymes, yet there may be no better a definition of everything that makes Common so fantastic than the albums' most well-known single, "The Light."

In every aspect, the songs of Common are a welcome change from the mainstream sounds of hip-hop, and this begins in the music over which he performs.  For "The Light," Common worked with producer Jay Dee, and the pair created one of the most uniquely catchy musical arrangements in recent history.  The song is built around a bouncing keyboard progression performed by James Poyser and a stiff, yet smooth drum sample pulled from The Detroit Emeralds' song, "You're Getting a Little too Smart."  The way that these two sounds blend provides a perfect balance of relaxed melodies and the "bump" that signifies the current era of hip-hop music, and it is due to this combination that "The Light" has a massively wide appeal.  The song also features a sample from Bobby Caldwell's, "Open Your Eyes," and this too manages to work seamlessly with the rest of the sonic structure.  It is the way that the bassline grooves behind the rest of the instruments that enables "The Light" to become so irresistible, and there is no arguing that the track is as close to the 1970's "soul-funk" sound as has ever been achieved within the world of hip-hop music.  The smattering of scratching and other "exclusively" hip-hop musical elements cement the songs' place within the current face of the genre, and yet it is the way that the rest of the musical arrangement is pieced together that allows "The Light" to stretch far beyond the range of almost any other hip-hop song in history.

However, while the musical arrangement on "The Light" is certainly unforgettable, it is both the style and substance of Common's rhymes that have turned the track into an absolute classic.  Standing in stark contrast to a majority of emcees of his era, Common makes a very constant and conscious effort to ensure that every word he delivers is audible, and this proves his confidence in his lyrics, as well as his rhyming style.  It is this smooth, natural way that the words flow from him that further distances Common from his peers, and there is no question that he remains one of the most talented and highly respected emcees in the current world of hip-hop music.  Yet it is this more laid-back, controlled rhyming style that helps to make the lyrics on "The Light" all the more powerful, as he goes against almost everything else that has occurred within the world of hip-hop in the past two decades.  The story one can find on "The Light" is as confessional in nature as one can find, as Common spins what is almost a love letter, and without question one of the most heartfelt and powerful lyrics ever committed to tape.  Standing in start contrast to the stereotypically misogynistic approach that most take within the world of hip-hop, Common delivers what stands as an amazingly sincere and moving dedication of "true" love, respect, and appreciation for his girlfriend, and the words he uses are so powerful and universal, that they can be applied to anyone who has found their soul-mate.

Almost from the moment that Like Water For Chocolate was released, "The Light" was a hit, quickly climbing the charts and eventually earning a Grammy nomination for "Best Rap Solo Performance."  The song remains a "new classic" of hip-hop, as it can still easily hold its own within the current scene, and is just as fresh even after hearing the song countless times.  Furthermore, as the years have passed, "The Light" has been remixed a number of times, most notably in a version that is almost twice as long, featuring a brilliant vocal addition by Erykah Badu.  Regardless of which version one hears, it is the power in the delivery and content of Common's rhymes that remain so stunning, and there is no question that he is easily one of the greatest emcees in the entire history of hip-hop music.  The fact that a song that was so dissimilar from the "norms" of both r&b and hip-hop at the time seemed to work in its favor, as it quickly gained a following that went far beyond "just" the fanbase of either of those two styles.  In many ways, "The Light" is as universal a song as one can find anywhere, as the combination of the smooth, soulful musical arrangement, and the honest, perhaps unguarded vocal delivery represent the very essence of what original and creative music is all about.  Truly representing what it means to "keep it real," as well as displaying an unmatched vocal talent, there are few emcees that can hold their own alongside Common, and he was without question at the top of his game on his unforgettable 2000 single, "The Light."

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