Thursday, May 2, 2013

LL COOL J, Mama Said Knock You Out
Melody Maker, August 1990

by Simon Reynolds

I still think rap was most exciting when it was sociopathic and solipsistic, brutalist and beyond the pale. But the fact is that LL Cool J’s brand of rap megalomania has now been thoroughly outflanked and outmoded: by the laidback positivity and communal ethos of De La Soul and the Native Tongue posse of Afro-conscious rap groups; by Public Enemy’s righteous ire and thrust for collective power. Even on LL’s own egomaniacal terrain, he’s been surpassed in nastiness by the LA gangster rappers.

The stance and sound of LL and his Def Jam contemporaries (Run DMC, Beasties) is dated, a relic in a genre where freshness is at a premium, and LL knows this. The album’s title track starts with a shrill outburst: “Don’t call this a comeback/I bin here for years”. Throughout the track LL comports himself like one of those punch-drunk boxers who make global imbeciles of themselves by putting in hopeless bids to win back the Heavyweight Championship of the world. LL has long identified with boxers: previously he’s compared himself with Mike Tyson, here he namechecks Muhammed Ali. His deluded bluster is mesmerizing in its sad sincerity: “I’m the man of the hour/Tower of power… Oooh, listen to the way/I slay… Lyrics that’ll make you call the cops… Damage, destruction, terror and mayhem… I think I’m gonna bomb a town.”

There’s a terrible pathos here, the pathos of a doomed dictator like Ceaucescu or Hussein. And it’s a pathos that takes us to the core of rap psychology. Rap’s always been an assertion in the face of the void; rap intimidates because its motor is a terror of anonymity and death (the fate of all gangsters--where’s Schoolly D now?). Because of this, “Mama Said Knock You Out” is the most gripping moment on the album. Next to this pathos, “Farmers Boulevard” is just pathetic: LL waxing nostalgic for his home turf, and--gracious potentate that he is--allowing his old homeboys some cameo appearances. It’s almost like he’s thinking of the old showbiz adage about being careful about who you step on when you’re on the way up, cos you’ll surely meet them on the way down.

There are two references to Bobby Brown on Mama and it’s tempting to read this as a sign that LL knows that Brown has usurped much of his teen heart throb/bad boy appeal. Bobby Brown galvanized pop soul with a little bit of B-boy attitude: LL tried (and momentarily succeeded with “I Need Love”) to give rap a little pop gloss. In the process, he lost all credibility with the hardcore crowd. Ironically, just about the only enjoyable track here is “Around the Way Girl”, a calculated bid for the Bobby Brown market, candy-coated with deliciously syrupy harmony backing vocals. It’s a tribute to “neighbourhood girls”, with their hair extensions, bamboo earings and sassy bad attitude. Scrumptious, but the impression you’re left with his that the song is like a bag of sweets proferred by some inadequate hanging around the school gates, who should really be seducing someone his own age.

The rest of Mama is mighty dreary. “The Boomin’ System”, a dirge based around an En Vogue bassline, is about cruising around with an in-car stereo that has the sidewalks quaking. “Milky Cereal” is a whimsical exercise, LL composing a narrative based around breakfast brandnames. And so on. The grainy R&B samples, the slick rhymes and fluent delivery (LL is the still the most technically proficient rapper)--all create the impression of an artist trapped in his own style, in his own barren head space. LL Cool J is all used up with nowhere to go.

[post script: "Mama Said Knock You Out", after exposure to the video on MTV, became one of my favorite rap songs -- I still think LL's lyrics and deliveries is right up there as one of the outstanding MC performances of all time. The rest of the album I never went back to, although many critics considered it one of the best LPs of that year)

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