The Grammy Awards must have had no idea how lucky they were to choose LL Cool J as their host: The rapper-actor struck exactly the right tone as he honored Whitney Houston without letting her death completely overshadow the ceremony.
Adele dominated Sunday, winning Record of the Year for "Rolling in the Deep" and Album of the Year for "21," as well as four other awards. Before Houston's death, the biggest question of the night was how she would sound after her vocal chord surgery. She put any worries to rest by giving by far the best performance of the night — as she tends to do. Later, Jennifer Hudson delivered another highlight with a performance of "I Will Always Love You" — a Dolly Parton song that became Houston's signature hit.
Also read: Grammys: The Complete List of Winners
The three-and-a-half hour ceremony turned the focus repeatedly to a few Grammy favorites — especially Adele, Paul McCartney, and the Foo Fighters' Dave Grohl.
The ceremony began with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band performing the new single "We Take Care of Our Own" — as had been planned before Houston's shocking death. Then Cool J took the stage and immediately addressed the elephant in the Staples Center.
"There is no way around this. We've had a death in our family," he said. "And so at least for me, for me, the only thing that feels right is to begin with a prayer for a woman we loved — for our fallen sister, Whitney Houston."
He then began what seemed like an award show first — a prayer. Stars from Katy Perry to Blake Shelton bowed their heads as he thanked God "for sharing Whitney with us."
Atheists may not have been happy. But the moment felt right.
And then Cool J — one of the many rappers who Grammy voters saw not-quite three decades ago as a new and confusing force in music — subtly lightened the mood. After playing one of Houston's memorable Grammy performances, he promised new ones. He said one would come from "Sir O.G. [Original Gangster] Paul McCartney, my homie."
("O.G. Original Gangster" is an Ice-T song from around his "Cop Killer" days. McCartney is one of the most universally beloved figures in music. Rarely have hard-core hip-hop and popular culture blended together so seamlessly.)
McCartney, it turned out, provided two big perfomances: He played once early in the show show, then ended the long night with the medley that closes the Beatles' "Abbey Road." He was joined by Springsteen and the Foo Fighters' Dave Grohl, among others.
Cool J's hosting at first seemed a marriage of convenience — he stars on "NCIS: LA," which airs on CBS, which also aired the Grammys. But his ability to honor Houston while tactfully keeping the ceremony moving proved a huge asset.
There was no forgetting Houston's death — and no one wanted to. The intro to a long-planned planned tribute to Etta James by Bonnie Raitt and Alicia Keys was quickly rewritten to honor Houston as well.
But the show soon settled into a familiar rhythym. The Foo Fighters — the band that has agreed to gamely fill many a boring ceremony's "indie and edgy" quota — continued to push the envelope without pushing the envelope at all by performing outside. Grohl wore a Slayer shirt. It was fine.
Moments later, the band won the Best Rock Performance award for "Walk," one of several wins. Grohl noted that the band's latest album was recorded in his garage and said, "It's not about what goes on in a computer. It's about what goes on in here [pointing to his heart] and it's about what goes on in here [pointing to his heart]." Then an LMFAO song played.
And then Ryan Seacrest took the stage to introduce a Beach Boys tribute and performance. If not for Houston's death, the Beach Boys reunion might have been the biggest moment of the night. Long overshadowed by the Beatles and Rolling Stones, the band has become a major influence on such acclaimed and experimental bands as Fleet Foxes and Animal Collective.
Chart-topping bands Maroon 5 and Foster the People turned in credible covers of Beach Boys songs before the group — finally featuring Brian Wilson after decades of division — performed a medley of their harmony-filled hits.
Later, Glen Campbell brought McCartney and other stars to their feet as he sang "Rhinestone Cowboy" wearing a jacket bedecked in — what else? — rhinestones. The singer, who is battling Alzheimers, received a Lifetime Achievement Award.
Potentially incendiary moments passed uneventfully. Chris Brown and Rihanna performed — separately — three years after Brown brutalized his then-girlfriend after a 2009 Grammy party hosted by Clive Davis. (Davis' party is becoming incredibly storied — after Houston's death Saturday, it became a tribute to her.) Rihanna called on the crowd to "make some noise" for Houston, then performed with Coldplay. That transitioned into the band doing its Radiohead-lite routine.
Brown went on to win the Best R&B Album award for "F.A.M.E."
Other memorable performances included one by Swift, who sang "Mean" against a rambling shack backdrop. She wore a long, simple dress and held a banjo she didn't seem to be actually playing.
Carrie Underwood dueted with Tony Bennett, who can do anything, and made it look easy, as usual.
The Lady Gaga effect was very apparent: Rapper Nicki Minaj had the most provocative arrival, wearing all red and holding the arm of an escort dressed as the Pope. Her performance included a mock exorcism and her levitating against a backdrop of stained glass windows as backup singers dressed as monks sang along. Perry delivered another ambitious performance that included a body double and lots of flames.
But Adele's straightforward performance of "Rolling in the Deep" won the night. The British singer suggested she had made a complete recovery from her surgery with a controlled but stirring performance, then won album, record, and song of the year.
Rarely have those awards felt so in the bag.