To hear both Eminem and Black Thought (The Roots’ MC) attack Cool J’s classic with such precision—breath control, check; staccato flow, check; rhyme each line verbatim, check—was to hear two rappers clearly influenced by LL Cool J’s early work. With the exception of Black Thought’s “Rest In Peace Michael Jackson” line (the original line LL wrote is “Do you like Michael Jackson”) neither rapper changed a word. Instead, they focused on the song’s greatness, its lyrics, rapping each bar like little kids lip-synching in front of a mirror. It should be noted that they also didn’t wear ridiculous outfits to hearken the era from which the song came. Eminem did the smart thing by opting for a Kangol baseball cap, instead of wearing the full-on bucket hat that LL would never leave home without.
Most of the other tributes did not fare so well.
When it was time for the show to focus on Def Jam’s southern label, Def Jam South, Houston rapper Scarface (who served as the division’s head of AR when it was getting off the ground)failed to move the audience when he performed “Guess Who’s Back,” a Kanye West-produced gem from Scarface’s album, The Fix. The problem was that the song is only 7 years old, an age too young to be classic, too old to be familiar. It also isn’t a proper tribute if an honoree himself performs the song. That’s like making a hall-of-fame inductee introduce himself. “Guess Who’s Back” would have resonated much stronger if a younger, more popular Southern artist like Young Jeezy performed it.
At other points in the show, the tributes were a confusing mess.
When rap-rock group Gym Class Heroes took the stage with D.C. rapper Wale and KRS-One, to perform the Beastie Boys’ 1986 hit “No Sleep Till Brooklyn,” all three MCs interjected their own rhymes within the original verses. Surprisingly, KRS-One—the token old-school rapper in the performance—was the most flagrant, abandoning script all together with an impromptu freestyle.