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Rappin' up the wrong tree



On the wide spectrum of rap--from the bubblegum of Vanilla Ice and M.C. Hammer to the bleak, unfriendly visions of the Geto Boys and N.W.A.--L.L. Cool J has staked himself out a comfortable spot right in the middle. Safely street but just as safely unpolitical, musically diverse but never outre, he trades on an easy, almost facile pop sensibility that has captured the fascination of millions of kids, but dresses it in a disappointingly mundane lyrical ability. He originally shared a producer and label with Run-D.M.C.; certainly a star in his own right now, L.L. will nevertheless always toil in their shadow.

L.L. Cool J regularly opened for Run-D.M.C. during their heyday in the mid-80s. Back then, of course, it looked like Run-D.M.C. would go all the way: After laying down a hefty challenge with their second album, King of Rock (not, you'll note, "King of Rap"), the two rapping front men and their DJ, Jam Master Jay, pulled off an even more audacious trick with the first and greatest yet rock-rap crossover, their rapped-up remake duet with Aerosmith of "Walk This Way." The group seemed poised on the brink of a musical fusion that might permanently alter the face of pop music.

It was a Pyrrhic victory; the rap sensibility that Run-D.M.C., producer Rick Rubin, and manager Russell Simmons (Run's brother) had refined came to dominate popular music even as the group itself disappeared from the charts. (They may yet turn out to be rap's first oldies act.) The methodology, and their legacy to L.L. and every other pop rapper, consisted of brilliantly conceived classic rock and soul samples (on a later album, Run-D.M.C. sampled, to marvelous effect, the Monkees' "Mary, Mary"); raps on close-to-home subjects like clothes, women, and the music itself; cozily tongue-in-cheek rap boasting ("I've stood on many stages, held many mikes / Take airplane flights / at huge heights"); and an overarching unhurried joie de vivre that only the progeny of the middle classes and up can produce. While Run-D.M.C.'s direct influence is most appreciable on the pop side of rap (one of the reasons critics so despise people like Hammer and Vanilla Ice is that they're so weak when compared to Run-D.M.C.), they're revered by harder acts as well, being a major influence on Public Enemy, for example.

But it was young James Todd Smith (whose raponymic stands for "Ladies Love Cool James") who took the pop mantle from the kids from Hollis. He created his first rap song, "I Need a Beat," at the age of 16--after, legend has it, his grandfather refused to buy him a dirt bike and got him a keyboard instead. Producer Rick Rubin and Def Jam, the record company built on the back of Run-D.M.C., grabbed little L.L. and signed him up. His first hit was "I Can't Live Without My Radio," a hopped-up but otherwise rather unprepossessing ode to the boom box. His first album, Radio, and the follow-up, Bigger and Deffer, showed off his developing vocal skills and produced probably the first genuine rap ballad hit, "I Need Love." L.L.'s third record, Walking With a Panther, featured the savagely funny "I'm That Type of Guy," an only-half-joking sex boast. His newest record is the extravagant Mama Said Knock You Out, with its over-the-top landmark title single. The song has gained him new critical credibility, and the status of MTV darling: recent appearances, both in an acoustic (!) performance on MTV Unplugged and with a huge band (!) on the channel's video awards show, have only increased his standing.

What L.L. Cool J has got going for him, primarily, are his voice and his sense of humor. He can whisper, croon, yell, holler, or scream; be sexy or wimpy; talk tough or reasonable or deliver a devastating snicker--all over the course of a single song, and all with utter conviction. His sense of humor is unreliable but ever present. "Mama Said Knock You Out" shows off both strengths perfectly: a by-the-book masterpiece of rap braggadocio, it undercuts itself with an uncharacteristically deep subtext nicely encapsulated in the title. (At the end of the terrific video, lion-in-the-ring L.L. gets a TKO from grandma.) "I'm That Type of Guy" is another great performance; it's filled with lines like:

You're the type of guy who tells her stay inside . . .

I'm the type of guy who comes in when you leave

I'm doing your girlfriend [snicker]--it's somethin' you can't believe.


You're the type of guy try to call me a punk

Not knowin' that your main girl is bitin' my chunk

Usually a pleasure to listen to, L.L. does have his drawbacks. Despite the occasional lyrical success, his art is almost entirely concentrated in his voice (and producer Marly Marl is the real secret weapon on Mama Said): L.L.'s rhymes, while sometimes pointed, are more often leaden ("With your rayon, silk, or maybe even denim / It really doesn't matter, as long as you're in 'em"), and he's surprisingly inept when it comes to setting a scene: "So we can go out and eat somewhere / We got a lot of private jokes to share." His subjects have remained superficial and proletarian even by rap standards--besides the title song, Mama Said's big hit is "The Boomin' System," L.L.'s tribute to car radios.

At a recent concert at the University of Chicago's Mandel Hall, of all places, L.L. showed off his stuff, for better or worse. After the release of the album late last year, he made the usual promo tour, playing in Chicago a competent but unintentionally amusing half-filled show at the Riviera. The concert unquestionably had its moments, but the images that stayed with you afterward were a series of stultifyingly acted dramatizations--a dysfunctional family finally brought together by love, a raging L.L. captured by dancers and put in a cage--that made the whole thing seem a little ridiculous. The new tour was much more ambitious musically; impressed by the reception his full band workout got on the video awards show, L.L. amassed a huge 17-member ensemble of musicians and dancers, trying to demonstrate that rap can rock with the best of them. It was this Frankensteinian aggregation that graced Hyde Park a couple of weeks ago.

Rap in a live setting is always iffy and often disastrous. The undemanding rap audience has let rappers get away with unlistenable mixes in cavernous halls and shameless lip synching. While there will always be groups like Public Enemy, who can dominate a room or an arena with sheer physical presence, it's harder for performers with less personality to pull it off. And personality counts for a lot in rap: since the music is not so much performed as electronically stitched together out of tape bits, samples, and drum machines, there's not much else to fall back on.

L.L. appears to understand the problem and to want to find some way to translate this forceful music to the stage. He's to be credited with worrying about it at all, but his show demonstrates that he's barking up the wrong tree. The ensemble was unwieldy to say the least: two drummers, two keyboardists, four horns, two guitars, two basses, four dancers, and L.L. and his scratcher, Cut Creator, crowded themselves onto Mandel Hall's proscenium. Problems? You bet. First off, the ensemble wasn't exactly the Famous Flames, if you get my drift. Second, whether they were just bored, unhappy, or undisciplined, the aggregation never seemed to be having any fun: there wasn't a single moment of blasting, in-your-face excitement. And third, after about two numbers you realized that that studio insularity is exactly what gives rap songs their potency.

Take "Mama Said Knock You Out," already a classic. The beginning is a spooky, ascending sample of someone saying "ah" laid over an ominous bass line. The chorus--which ranks with Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" as the most irresistible bars in popular music this past year--includes a baby squeal, a chain-gang "hoo-ah!" and some mad scratching. The rest of the song is filled with other mysterious noises and dramatic stops and starts. These aren't just frills--they're what make the song. How can you reproduce that force onstage?

Not with horns and guitars, let me tell you. Whether by intent or accident, the shoulder-to-shoulder musicians--the stage had the rough look of a crowded el platform--couldn't or wouldn't reproduce the song's jagged bottom: it was hardly even a dance track anymore. The misfire of "Mama Said" typified the rest of the show as well. L.L. took the stage in a long denim frock coat with his name and image airbrushed on the back. The show wasn't short, but he only played about eight songs, each one done up with extremely long intros and outros. (Many of the endings, particularly, reminded me of some old rock movie--Southern Jam or some such thing--where dopey old Charlie Daniels would finish each song with incredibly pompous, overdone endings.) At the end of every number, L.L. would stand with his back to the crowd and make like an orchestra conductor to finish the song. L.L. Cool J is extremely handsome and charismatic in a goofy sort of way; but he now takes himself far too seriously (he didn't seem to in the good old "Radio" days) and apparently hasn't got anyone around to tell him so: he stalks the stage like a champ whether he's just given birth to a mountain or a mouse.

This assertively plainspoken articulator of the sensibility of modern urban youth went over pretty well with the U. of C. students, though there were some priceless moments when L.L. went into his obligatory speeches about drugs and education. "How many of us are concerned about drug use in our community?" he asked the crowd. "And how many of us are concerned with our children getting a good education?" Like most U. of C. students I'm in favor of a good education, but these drug lectures dispensed by L.L. and most other rap artists are pure BS. Besides being entirely hypocritical, they're condescending to the audience--black or white, privileged or no. It's just a cheap and easy way to get some public-service brownie points.

"Around the Way Girl" on album is sultry and rather pretty, despite its sexist subject matter and unartful lyrics; it has a weird, Alvin and the Chipmunksy sample driving the chorus. But live it was almost unrecognizable. "I Need Love," an earnest, pleading ballad, came off a bit tawdry, with too many musicians churning behind L.L. and his ill-advised intro: "What I want you to do right now is if you got a lighter or some matches I want you to light 'em up right now!" He got a grand response of about three. (This line didn't go over well at the Riviera, either.) The show ended with something approaching a roar with "Mama Said." The crowd demanded an encore; L.L. and the band came back out, redoing the "Mama Said" riff over and over, never breaking into the full chorus or verses. Maybe they didn't know any more songs.

In Mama Said L.L. Cool J has put out the best pop-rap song cycle since King of Rock; he, rather than the likes of Hammer or Marky Mark, should be the inheritor of Run-D.M.C.'s massive crossover success. But he's too callow, too out of touch; he can't even get his rap act in order before he's off back on the road with some huge band that can barely hold a stage. His shows have all the class of a pro-wrestling subregional championship, or a fundamentalist's chautauqua whistle-stop. There's some energy, sure, and it'll make you a living. But this is definitely not the future of rap.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Adam Lisberg.

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