is notorious for short-lived careers, but LL Cool J is the
inevitable exception that proves the rule. Releasing his first
single "I Can't Live Without My Radio" in 1985 when
he was just 18 years old, LL Cool J initially was a hard-hitting,
street-wise B-Boy with spare beats and ballistic rhymes. He
quickly developed an alternate style, a romantic — and occasionally
sappy — lover's rap epitomized by his mainstream breakthrough
single, "I Need Love." LL's first two albums, Radio
and Bigger and Deffer, made him a star, but he strived for
pop stardom a little too much on 1989's Walking With A Panther.
By 1990, his audience had declined somewhat, since his ballads
and party raps were the opposite of the chaotic, edgy political
hip-hop of Public Enemy or the gangsta rap of N.W.A., but
he shot back to the top of the charts with Mama Said Knock
You Out, which established him as one of hip-hop's genuine
superstars. By the mid-'90s, he had starred in his own televsion
sitcom, In the House, appeared in several films and had racked
up two of his biggest singles with "Hey Lover" and
"Doin' It." In short, he had proven that rappers
could have long-term careers.
Of course, that
didn't seem likely when he came storming out of Queens, New
York when he was 16 years old. LL Cool J (b. James Todd Smith;
his stage name is an acronym of "Ladies Love Cool James")
had already been rapping since the age of nine. Two years
later, his grandfather — he had been living with his grandparents
since his parents divorced when he was four — gave him a DJ
system and he began making tapes at home. Eventually, he sent
these demo tapes to record companies, attracting the interest
of Def Jam, a fledgling label run by New York University students
Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin. Def Jam signed LL Cool J and
released his debut single, "I Need A Beat," as their
first single in 1984. The record sold over 100, 000 copies,
establishing both the label and the rapper.
out of high school and recorded his debut album, Radio.
Released in 1985, Radio was a major hit and it earned considerable
praise for how it shaped raps into recognizable pop song
structures. On the strength of "I Can't Live Without
My Radio" and "Rock the Bells," the album
went platinum in 1986. The following year, his second album
Bigger and Deffer shot to number three due to the ballad
"I Need Love," which became one of the first pop-rap
LL Cool J's
knack for making hip-hop as accessible as pop was one of
his greatest talents, yet it was also a weakness, since
it opened him up to accusations of him being a sell-out.
Taken from the Less Than Zero soundtrack, 1988's "Goin'
Back to Cali" walked the line with ease, but 1989's
Walking With A Panter was not greeted warmly by most hip-hop
fans. Although it was a Top 10 hit and spawned the gold
single "I'm That Type of Guy," the album was perceived
as a pop sell-out effort, and on a supporting concert at
the Apollo, he was booed. LL Cool J didn't take the criticism
lying down — he struck back with 1990's Mama Said Knock
You Out, the hardest record he ever made. LL supported the
album with a legendary, live acoustic performance on MTV
Unplugged, and on the strength of the Top 10 R&B singles
"The Boomin' System" and "Around the Way
Girl" (number nine, pop) as well as the hit title track,
Mama Said Knock You Out became his biggest-selling album,
establishing him as a pop star in addition to a rap superstar.
He soon landed roles in the films The Hard Way (1991) and
Toys, and he also performed at Bill Clinton's Presidential
Inauguration in 1993. Mama Said Knock You Out kept him so
busy that he didn't deliver the folllowup, 14 Shots to the
Dome, until the spring of 1993. Boasting a harder, gangsta-rap
edge, 14 Shots intially sold well, debuting in the Top 10,
but it was an unfocused effort that generated no significant
hit singles. Consequently, it stalled at gold status and
hurt his reputation considerably.
failure of 14 Shots to the Dome, LL Cool J began starring
in the NBC sitcom In the House. He returned to recording
in 1995, releasing Mr. Smith toward the end of the year.
Unexpectedly, Mr. Smith became a huge hit, going double
platinum and launching two of his biggest hits with the
Boyz II Men duet "Hey Lover" and "Doin' It."
At the end of 1996, he released the greatest hits album,
All World. Phenomenon was issued in 1997, and G.O.A.T. Featuring
James T. Smith: The Greatest of All Time appeared three
years later. — Stephen Thomas Erlewine