ACL Fest: Why LL Cool J would be your mom’s favorite rap show

Mama said, “Oh, this is nice!”

As I walked over to the LL Cool J set Saturday, I passed DJ Mustard leading a chant of “F*** Donald Trump.” I filled my water bottle and moved up to the Samsung stage. Then, sparks sprayed and LL Cool J emerged from the back with his arms up like Rocky Balboa, launching into a jukebox jubilee of “Mama Said Knock You Out.” Four hours later, Kendrick Lamar was scheduled to take the stage, where last week he delivered a scorching set with an ominous black-and-white image of Ronald Reagan projected behind him.

One of these things, to use a cliche, is not like the other.

The host of “Lip Sync Battle” was a crowd-favorite during his weekend one set at Austin City Limits Music Festival, and the American-Statesman’s Deborah Sengupta Stith dubbed him “hip-hop’s ladies man.” After watching LL Cool J’s second go ’round the ACL circuit, I would take the designation to an even more specific place. He’s your mom’s favorite rapper.

Austin, TX - LL Cool J performs during day two of ACL Music Festival at Zilker Park on October 1, 2016. Suzanne Cordeiro for American-Statesman

Austin, TX – LL Cool J performs during day two of the first weekend of ACL Music Festival at Zilker Park on October 1, 2016. Suzanne Cordeiro for American-Statesman

No shade. As ACL invests further every year into the hip hop and EDM world, it brings exciting, and at times controversial, artists like Lamar to the fore. So fully embracing the non-threatening wedding reception turn-up of LL Cool J stands out. The man has a mic stand sculpted into the letters of his name. He passes out roses to women in the crowd. Fun for the whole family, a valuable commodity at the fest.

Don’t get me wrong. The man still tore through “Jack the Ripper” with knuckle-clenched ferocity. He was not above a hard crouch low to the stage while spitting rhymes. His body is one giant trapezius muscle, and he most certainly could still make with the knocking out. LL Cool J was here to entertain, first and foremost, and it wasn’t with laser lights and exhortations to jump. It was with “Going Back To Cali,” “I Can’t Live Without My Radio” and b-boys.

But for definitely not better and certainly worse, hip hop is still a hard-sell for some people who might definitely be your mom. The reasons are legion and steeped in some ugly truths about racism and decades-old, fear-based popular opinion rooted in the very same thing. One wonders if it’s weird for LL Cool J, a contemporary of Public Enemy even if he was never as political, to realize he now fills the “comfy nostalgia” spot on the ACL schedule. Maybe Billy Idol or The Replacements have wondered the same thing in recent years.

But something tells me he doesn’t mind, because he brought a small girl up on stage and draped her in his chain. “You can do anything you put your mind to,” he told her. “The future is yours. Do good things with it.”

LL Cool J’s show was warm and fuzzy in the greater ACL context, but if that make him a gateway to sounds someone might not otherwise hear, then cuddle up to that knit cap of his.

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