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LL Cool J Was the Grammys Host That James Corden Could Never Be

Six-time host LL was not the host we wanted, he was the host we deserved.

Image credit: Kevin Winter / Getty Staff

"He licked his lips! Drink!" For the last five years that LL Cool J hosted the Grammys, I've found myself shouting that throughout the night. Awards shows have always been ripe for drinking games, and taking a drink every time you inaccurately predict the winner of an award is an old standby of sorts—but in recent years the Grammys have proved impervious to that rule of imbibing, since they drastically reduced the number of categories during the prime-time telecast. (You could watch the scores of awards they hand out on the pre-show livestream during the day, but would you really want to?)


So the last five years of Grammy telecasts have relied on two constants: a stupid speech by the astoundingly boring, fake-Michael-McDonald-looking-ass Recording Academy President Neil Portnow, and the incessant lip-licking of a sometimes Kangol'd, sometimes-un-Kangol'd LL Cool J. LL's yearly presence has proved somewhat soothing amidst the Grammys' yearly strum und drang (occasional stage-crashing and sneak-diss-speechifying aside), but I don't quite know why. His regular gig on NCIS: Los Angeles is what presumably makes him most eligible for the gig, since the crime procedural is aired by CBS, the network that also regularly airs the Grammys; and he doesn't do any heavy lifting as emcee, his opening monologue seldom lasting more than a few sentences of "This really is Music's Biggest Night" or "Give it up for The Band Perry."

LL Cool J adds about as much to your typical Grammys as Jessie J does to a Tom Jones performance—so why do I find myself missing him in anticipation of the 2017 Grammy Awards, the first time in six years that he won't be hosting? Part of this is because of his replacement: late-night host and "Carpool Karaoke" aider-and-abetter James Corden. Listen, I wouldn't say Corden is the worst late-night host: Jimmy Fallon is more abrasively sycophantic, and Trevor Noah is Trevor Noah. But Corden's Grammys hosting gig is illustrative as to where the show's producers would like to take it: more presence, more comedy, more sight gags, and more Hollywood razzle-dazzle than a Honda packed with Adeles. I'm not suggesting that Corden's going to make a grand entrance wired up like Lady Gaga at the Super Bowl—I'm saying with absolute certainty that if he doesn't do so, he'll do something even cornier instead.

James Corden does a great job of trying too hard—unlike Fallon, he doesn't overtip his hand, and unlike Stephen Colbert, I'm at least faintly aware of what he does on TV despite not watching either of their shows. When it comes down to hosting the Grammys, though, LL Cool J never tried that hard, a strategy that would set most up to fail. LL found success in this passive form of emceeing, though; he'd pop up every now and then throughout the show, offering pointless observations like the guy at your Grammys party refilling the chip bowl while yelling "WHAT AM I MISSING?" from the kitchen.

That analogy might not even fit LL's approach to a T, since it suggests some sort of active investment in what's going on with the show. As Grammys host, LL has always come across as a guy who wandered in from another room, was handed a mic, and decided to host the Grammys. His level of investment—minimal, slightly bemused, obsessed with licking his lips—mirrors ours as viewers, in a really real sense. The Oscars can be simultaneously gripping and boring, but the Grammys are often just boring for a thousand reasons previously stated in a plethora of thinkpieces throughout the years. Those who watch them often do so to fill a void in their Sunday night, and it's extremely relatable to watch an awards show host who presumably took the gig because their schedule was clear.

I have gotten the impression that James Corden, on the other hand, is most likely very excited to host the Grammys this Sunday. And that's why I'm going to miss the calming, cool-handed presence of LL Cool J when I inevitably tune in for Music's Biggest Night this Sunday. LL wasn't the Grammys host we initially wanted, but he ended up being the one we deserved. Whatever sure-to-be-viral horrors Corden's been cooking up for this Sunday, I am positive of one thing: no one deserves to have them foisted upon their eyes.