One really cool achievement
Actor-singer first rapper to earn Kennedy Center Honors.
LOS ANGELES — After spending the first half of his workday pretending to be an undercover agent on the hit CBS procedural “NCIS: Los Angeles,” LL Cool J is relaxing in his trailer at Paramount Studios, answering questions about what’s real.
That radio he couldn’t live without? Real. His need for love? Still real. Lisa, Angela, Pamela, Renee? Real, real, real and real — if he closes his eyes, he can see their faces. And yes, back in 1990, when his critics were encouraging the 22-year-old rap pioneer to consider an early retirement, Grandma Cool J really-truly did urge young LL to knock the fools unconscious.
But as a rapper, what interests LL most is the unreal. He thinks of rapping as an imaginative opportunity — flexing your make-believe muscles allows you to learn the breadth of your humanity, the height of your hopes and the depth of your desire. Imagination is what allowed LL to channel his libido into an ode to breakfast on “Milky Cereal.” It gave him permission to rhyme “cornea” with “hornier” in the first verse of “Back Seat.” It’s how he came up with the most mysterious sex metaphor in rap history and then named the entire song after it: “Pink Cookies in a Plastic Bag Getting Crushed by Buildings.” Keeping it real can be a reflex for most rappers, but it’s LL Cool J’s imagination that made his music feel stranger, sexier, funnier, more fun, more alive.
“Music is about the feel, and I always went for the feel-good,” the 49-year-old says on the Paramount lot. “That’s a very odd choice in hip-hop.”
Very true. But isn’t every choice odd when you’re the first person tasked with making it? Rap music’s first big solo star, LL got his start as a teenage brag machine and was quickly sent to the front lines of pop’s vanguard, where he continued to pull rhymes out of thin air and chisel them into the American marble. On Sunday, he’ll be the first rapper to receive the Kennedy Center Honors, and he’ll be recognized not just for the magnetism of his songbook but for helping code the DNA of rap itself.
“I remember the first rhyme I wrote,” Eminem said recently in a podcast hosted by producer Rick Rubin and journalist Malcolm Gladwell. “It was so much of LL.”
It’s easy to imagine umpteen dozen other rappers saying the same thing. You can hear LL’s playfulness through the entirety of Missy Elliott’s wild-style discography. Nearly every verse that ever leaked from Pharrell Williams’s mouth can be traced back to 1990’s smirking “Mr. Good Bar.” Rap duo Run the Jewels took their name from a random scrap of interstitial blab on LL’s “Cheesy Rat Blues.”
Rapper, actor, author and entrepreneur LL Cool J is a 2017 Kennedy Center Honors recipient.