One re­ally cool achieve­ment

Ac­tor-singer first rap­per to earn Kennedy Cen­ter Hon­ors.

The Hazleton Standard-Speaker - - FRONT PAGE - BY CHRIS RICHARDS

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.”

MARVIN JOSEPH / WASH­ING­TON POST

Rap­per, ac­tor, au­thor and en­trepreneur LL Cool J is a 2017 Kennedy Cen­ter Hon­ors re­cip­i­ent.

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