LL Cool J's Kings of the Mic tour at Target Center, 5/30/13

LL Cool J's Kings of the Mic tour at Target Center, 5/30/13
via Facebook, Kings of the Mic tour did not allow photography for Target Center

Kings of the Mic Tour
With LL Cool J, Ice Cube, Public Enemy and De La Soul
Target Center, Minneapolis
Thursday, May 30, 2013

LL Cool J is 45 years old, and wearing it well. As he stalked the stage at Target Center as the final performer of the Kings of the Mic Tour, he seemed keenly aware that his powers over an audience had changed since his mid-'80s breakout. Certainly, a NCIS TV star who has received most of his headlines of late for a collaboration with country star Brad Paisley called "Accidental Racist" couldn't possibly be seen as the guy who once penned the scathing pop-star diss "Rock the Bells." But they are one and the same.

"Tell me where you were when this was going on," he purred as the intro played for the bigger and softer 1987 hit "I Need Love." And, then someone behind Gimme Noise shouted, "I wasn't born yet!" And, over the course of the night, a crowd of (mostly) aged hip-hop fans got to relive the songs of their youth, and have a few laughs about how serious it all seemed at the time.

Starting the trip down memory lane was De La Soul, who were given a sliver of stage to work with since all three acts to follow them already had their stage equipment set up behind them.  Dave and Posdnuos sometimes worked (and sometimes just stood there) with what little space they had to get the still-arriving crowd involved in the night. Before wrapping up with a participation-heavy "Me Myself and I," their enduring 1989 hit, they elicited cheers from the crowd based upon their age group. Mercifully, they stopped asking once they reached "35 and up," which received a thunderous response from a crowd that had smuggled far less contraband substances in their underwear than they probably would've a decade ago.

The red crosshairs appeared above as the large Public Enemy ensemble -- a full band and a couple of dancers in military camo fatigues -- took the stage next. Both wearing comfortable mesh basketball shorts, Chuck D and a clock-free Flavor Flav were free to bounce around the stage and made efficient use of their time -- and were sure to make it known that they were fresh inductees to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. After a rapid-fire "911 Is a Joke," which featured Chuck wielding his mic like a Louisville Slugger, "Welcome to the Terrordome" brought the highest pleasure of the set. Flavor Flav on slap bass can only be topped by Flavor Flav on the drums, which came about later during "Timebomb." Though their energy came and went, Public Enemy stayed focused through set-closer "Fight the Power," and got their dancers down on the stage doing pushups.

"Minnesota, can we kick it gangsta tonight?" asked Ice Cube, as he and hype man WC hit the stage. Though black-clad Cube occasionally looked a tad winded as he moved through the now sizable performance area, the infectious G-funk that he helped form throughout the '90s got the audience finally comfortable enough that their concealed weed started wafting through the room. (And for the people who were obviously just smoking regular cigarettes indoors at this point, shame on you.) As expensive music videos from years past rolled above him, including a couple of N.W.A. montages from when Cube was just a teenager, one thing has remained solid -- when this rapper needs to scowl, it's always there for him. It proved effective during "Why We Thugs," and a quick run-through of his verses off "Straight Outta Compton" and "Gangsta Gangsta."

But Cube loves working a crowd, and so the set eventually settled into call-and-response moments set to the backdrop of hits like "You Know How We Do It" and "Bop Gun." After a brief tribute to the departed Nate Dogg, "Gangsta Nation" signaled the inflation of two enormous hands, each forming a "W." It was ridiculous, and served as the perfect opportunity for Ice Cube to get maniacal with his dance moves. Of course "It Was a Good Day" was where things blissfully ended, and this audience ate it up.

DJ Z-Trip warmed up the crowd for a few minutes with an all-inclusive mix of hip-hop that has reigned in pop culture over the past three decades before LL Cool J finally elevated to the stage behind him. Working without a hype man, and with only a gilded mic stand he never touched and some roses to hand out to female fans, the rapper who is closing in on 30 years as a star performer made it clear that every era of his career is part of who he is.
Authentic is LL's first album in five years, and though he slipped a few songs from it into his 80-plus minutes onstage, his most direct references to it were apologizing for being gone so long -- and launching into songs and telling us afterward that we were rocking out to something new. In the case of "Whaddup," he brought out Chuck D to rap a bit of "Welcome to the Terrordome" again, and the two playfully sparred with each other. Though Authentic is loaded up with loads of collaborations -- including the aforementioned "Accidental Racist," which was not performed -- this should come as no surprise given the many hits Cool J amassed in the '90s with assists from Total ("Loungin'"), Boyz II Men ("Hey Lover"), and the emergent verse he donated to Craig Mack's "Flava in Ya Ear" remix. All of these songs figured in, and were padded with banter and his trademark grin and lick of his lips.

One collaboration that wasn't expected was the invitation of Atmosphere's Slug onstage ("I'm representing for y'all," Cool J said) to do a particularly ribald run through "Big Ole Butt." "Her vagina was bigger than the Target Center" tells you all you need to know about this bit of the act. Both of these guys looked like they were having the time of their lives, and it showed a nod of respect for the audience, and the torch-passing nature of hip-hop.

In the end, LL Cool J showed that he can endure. It was already two decades ago that he told us not to call it a comeback. As he sweated profusely through his red T-shirt and made sure his waistline was situated where he wanted it, he kept his verses tight all the way to the end of the set. Only a handful of rappers are brave enough, let alone engaging enough, to perform solo for a whole evening, and virtually none of them are 45. "Rock the Bells" and its old-school fury was where things ended -- semi-abruptly. Still hard as hell, the G.O.A.T. left the stage without waiting for fanfare and without an encore.   

Critic's Notebook

Personal Bias: Ice Cube at Roy Wilkins in '95 was my first concert without my folks.

The Crowd: There was a distinctly suburban vibe. The rapscallions of '93 are now wearing button-down shirts and can afford babysitters.

Overheard: "LLC stands for limited liability..." to the rhyme scheme of "Rock the Bells." Groan.

Random Notebook Dump: Where the hell is Craig Mack these days?

LL Cool J Setlist
Bath Salt
Jack the Ripper
I'm Bad
Doin' It
Luv U Better
Flava in Ya Ear (Remix)
4, 3, 2, 1
Not Leaving You Tonight
La Di Da Di
Brick House
Jingling Baby
Get Down
Mama Said Knock You Out
Going Back to Cali
I Need Love
Hey Lover
Big Poppa
Big Ole Butt
Around the Way Girl
Rock the Bells

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