Going back to Cali
Growlin', and smilin'
While in the sun
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Sunset Strip, Hollywood, c 2006
In the lyrics of “Going Back to Cali” by the hip-hop artist LL Cool J, Cali is both a place (short for California), but also transforms into a woman in the final verse of the song; but we’ll get to that. To LL Cool J (short for Ladies Love Cool James), Cali is a land of pleasure where you can cruise around in your black Corvette convertible (“and three girls waiting”), and your chrome sparkles in the blinding Pacific sun. In Cali during the late '80s, a “plushed out, gold-leaf phantom top” was actually cool, and not a description of some sort of Rococo nightmare visited upon a poor, unsuspecting vehicle in a Pimp My Ride
gone horribly wrong.
This single first appeared on the soundtrack to the Robert Downey Jr. vehicle Less Than Zero
in 1987, now a veritable period piece depiction of middle class angst in Los Angeles, California, in the late '80s involving poor spoiled rich kids with their trivial, self-inflicted problems. The movie was based on a book by Bret Easton Ellis of American Psycho
fame, and anyone familiar with his work would recognize his M.O. His stories are as much a tribute to decadence and immorality as any rap song, so the two make perfect bedfellows.
Lyrically, LL Cool J’s California dreaming continues as we visit Sunset Boulevard, one of L.A.’s chief tourist attractions; a 1.5 mile stretch of infamous road running through West Hollywood. Unlike most tourists, far from playing the usual game of “spot the celebrity” (which, for Cool J, would merely involve a quick glance in the rear-view), instead we are treated to a first-hand account of an escapade into a coolly air-conditioned “gentlemen’s lounge,” of which there are many to choose from along the aptly nicknamed Sunset Strip
At this venue, he makes the acquaintance of a fine and high-spirited woman (“prancin’, grindin’, grinnin’, romancin’”), and one thing leads to another. But problems arise when Cool J becomes worried about financial issues, and is not sure if he can afford the transaction. “I asked her to the barn, so we could hit the hay” he says. “I wanna do this, Brutus, but I don’t wanna pay.” This is understandable – by this point in the day he has already spent most of his money on car accessories. We are not entirely sure how this anecdote ends, but hopefully the reason why LL Cool J repeatedly says “Going back to Cali… I don’t think so” in the chorus is not due to pending charges.
In the final stanza of the song, it becomes clear that Cali may also be a woman in a small bikini and high-heels (possibly of the clear-heel variety). At this point Cool J takes us along on his idea of an amorous beach date (perhaps he is still trying to get out of paying?). Very rarely do rappers bring down that mask and show us their sensitive side, but I believe this may be what has happened when Cool J says before the final chorus: “She’s lookin’ for a real good time. I said, ‘Close your eyes, I got a surprise,’ and I ran away with the bottle of wine.” What an experience it is to be treated to this romantic highlight, straight from the life, and heart, of a foremost rapper.
At the end of the song, we are posed a paradoxically unanswerable question: after all this, why doesn’t LL Cool J want to go back to Cali? Maybe Cali doesn’t want him back. It seems that the only ones that will ever know are LL Cool J, and Cali.
~ Douglas MacCutcheon
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