Two decades into a career punctuated by nothing but outstanding albums, LL Cool J came to Brixton's Academy to display timeless, sonically challenging, old school credentials. As his historically and culturally significant deal with Def Jam comes to an end, he has been touring this one-hour show - just him and his usual DJ, Cut Creator - all year. It promotes his Todd Smith album while reminding the world just who he is and what he stands for. It's nearly twenty years since he last played London, and the 5000-capacity Academy was not entirely sold out. Neither was last week's show in Paris.
Well, they missed something. It was not a warming experience - far too many black acts try to warm their audiences up - but this clinical, insistent, and bighearted show confirmed LL's boss credentials,
Before he walked on a large screen celebrated his Hollywood acting work while words like "Pioneer," "Innovator," and "Legend," popped up on three smaller screens. While we looked at the screens Cut Creator, true to form, scratched his records just like a cat.
The audience was probably 80% non-white and 100% dull. They made pretty heavy weather out of enjoying themselves and maybe LL never quite got them on side. They were mainly late twenties through mid-thirties weekend clubbers, worker drones who think they're great dancers but who are not - people who'd be more at home in a DIY store than at a rap show.
Rap show, happily, is what they got ‚Äì
steamy and ruff and tuff and rhythmic. Bad, Radio, Around the Way Girl, Jingling Baby, and Mama Said Knock You Out were hammered into medley-like submission. Rapping in a dry Spoonie Gee/Wild Style staccato while Cut Creator laid down handsome metronomic beats, LL paid scant attention to his more loverman material or to the fact that he introduced song-like structures into rap
While the music was extreme, the stance and style seemed glossy or conservative. Bunches of stupid white bitches were dragged out of the crowd but two diligent besuited personal security guards ensured that none of them actually got near the star. It was slick as a TV show. This was a very American vision of what "show" means.
Iconic acts remind us of other times in our lives. Jagger, the Ramones, and Dylan, quintessential rock stars, have that effect. LL Cool J is a similar figure. I hear him doing Goin' Back to Cali and I think of the day I first heard it on the Less Than Zero soundtrack. Then I think, all over again, of what a superb piece of music it is. I look at him on stage and know I'm looking at a cultural monolith - the original rapper in the original wrapper.
Joe Ambrose has written 12 books, the most recent being Chelsea Hotel Manhattan and The Fenian Reader. He is currently writing a book about the Spanish Civil War.