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 17 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
television 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
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.
LL dropped 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 crossover
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.
Following the 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