Signed to Def Jam Records by Rick Rubin after Ad Rock of the Beastie Boys came across one of his demo tapes, LL's debut album Radio soon became the project upon which the label would build their success story. Not only reaching platinum status in sales and later receiving a 5 mic rating in Hip Hop bible The Source, it went on to spawn one of the culture's most defining moments in 'I Can't Live Without My Radio'. A few years before Spike Lee's character Radio Raheem (from the movie Do The Right Thing) became synonymous with the boombox, LL's b-boy manifesto, that featured the lyrics, "Walking down the street, to the hardcore beat/ While my JVC vibrates the concrete," was the original call for rap heads to express themselves via their sound system.
Continuing to spearhead the Def Jam movement, with the help of the Beastie Boys, LL's next offering, 1987's Bigger And Deffer, seemed more braggadocios yet ultimately justified. While ego is an everyday thing as far as rap music goes, if you can't deliver the product to back up your statement you will get challenged. LL not only delivered, he surpassed all expectations. Offering up the first rap ballad in the form of 'I Need Love', it became the first rap record to ever top Billboard's R&B Singles chart. However, whilst loved by more than his fair share of fans in high heels, some of his male counterparts didn't appreciate his lyrically watered down persona. Accused of being a sell-out on more than one occasion, the likes of Kool Moe Dee and Ice-T were quick to say a few things about the New York pretty boy.
Following the challenges to his credibility, LL, falling into a musical slump, released Walking With A Panther in 1989. Sitting at the opposite end of the popularity scale - afrocentric cries of fight the power were cramming the airwaves at the time - he filled an entire album with romantic anecdotes. Managing to carve out a few hits from it, 'Going Back To Cali', 'Big Ole Butt' and 'Jingling Baby' helped the album reach platinum status. Regardless, the boos that popped up at various LL performances at the time said all that needed to be said. It was time to wake up and smell the coffee.
Picking himself up, dusting off the commercial embarrassment, and then teaming up with super producer Marley Marl, the reinstatement of LL's tough guy image on Mama Said Knock You Out helped in creating a pinnacle moment in Hip Hop history. Rapping, "Don't call it a comeback," on the album's title track, LL, with a score to settle, lyrically boxed his way through any doubters he may have had. With 1990 appearing to be the year of Uncle L, the double platinum masterpiece, which featured joints like 'Around The Way Girl' and 'The Boomin' System', demonstrated the first real lyrical attack from LL on 'To Da Break Of Dawn'. Going at Kool Moe Dee, Ice-T, and even MC Hammer, LL Cool J the battle emcee was born. Introducing rap's first ever MTV Unplugged acoustic session, Mama Said Knock You Out is regarded as one of rap's finest moments.
Caught up in the success of Mama Said Knock You Out, only two of the 14 shots LL mentions in the title of his next album, 1993's 14 Shots To The Dome, appeared to hit their designated target - 'Pink Cookies In A Plastic Bag Getting Crushed By Buildings' and 'Back Seat'. Not living up to the hype that his previous effort generated, LL, who at the time was dealing with a lot of trials and tribulations in his personal life, seemed lost. However, finding his flow once again, his teaming with production duo the Trackmasters (also known as Poke & Tone) on his next album, Mr. Smith, saw Uncle L reinvent himself once again.
Housing two of his biggest records to date - 'Doin' It' and 'Hey Lover' featuring Boyz II Men - LL's 1995 album Mr. Smith became a huge success that went on to be certified 2x platinum. Removing the hardcore rap element that saw 14 Shots To The Dome flop, LL instead concentrated on the romanticising side of his game that meshed New Jack Swing with seductive rap ballads. Not ridding his repertoire of raw raps completely, 'I Shot Ya' showcased the wild side of LL and proved he could still run with the big boys - the remix featured Keith Murray, Prodigy, Fat Joe and Foxy Brown.
Whilst all of this was going on, LL's confidence in front of the camera returned too. Playing former football player Marion Hill in his own TV show, In The House, honing his acting skills he was soon to start a very successful career in the world of performance arts. Starring in movies such as Deep Blue Sea, S.W.A.T., and Any Given Sunday, the boy from Queens, New York was slowly becoming a household name. With that said, his credibility on the rap scene was once again about to be tested.
Quite possibly LL's biggest challenge to date, an upcoming rhymer by the name of Canibus would spit a bar on Cool J's '4, 3, 2, 1' about borrowing the legendary emcee's mic tattoo. After hearing it, LL took it as a diss, edited the young upstart's lyrics and then verbally attacked him on his closing verse. While the album itself wasn't as big of a success as some of his previous work, a talking point had been created and a beef started. Canibus hit back with the scathing 'Second Round K.O.'. Spitting, "You studied my rhyme, then you laid your vocals after mine/ That's a bitch move, something that a homo rapper would do," to this day it is still regarded as one of the hardest beef records in Hip Hop. Hitting back with 'The Ripper Strikes Back', LL proved he wasn't done. Following Canibus' low debut album sales, LL killed yet another career and further added to his legendary status.
On a winning streak, LL even took a pop at Jamie Foxx on 'U Can't F**k With Me' - "Once and for all, what's my opinion on Jamie Foxx?/ He pussy. Plus he ain't funny as Chris Rock, Ha" - after a physical altercation with the actor during the filming of Oliver Stone's Any Given Sunday. The album upon which it featured, 2000's G.O.A.T. (Greatest Of All Time) - a bold statement by LL - hit the number one spot on the Billboard 200. Featuring both street bangers - 'Shut 'Em Down' and 'Ill Bomb' - and something for the grown and sexy - 'Imagine That' and 'You And Me' - it was an across the board success with belief once again being reinstated in LL Cool J.
Going on to focus on fitness, LL has always encouraged healthy living and an active lifestyle. Besides his music, his fitness books and pep talks regarding a healthier lifestyle have become somewhat of a success also. Going on to release the albums 10, The DEFinition, Todd Smith - which saw a musical reconciliation with Jamie Foxx on 'Best Dress' - and then his Def Jam bow out album Exit 13, you'll be hard pushed to find another artist with as much influence and success over such a substantial amount of time as LL Cool J. Having recently released his first non-Def Jam project, Authentic, these days he's more an actor than a rapper. Playing the part of Sam Hanna, one of the lead roles in the highly successful TV series NCIS: Los Angeles, his commercially recognised celebrity status is justified for more than one reason.
Nowadays considered an elder statesman; a protector of Hip Hop if you will. To truly define LL Cool J, Busta Rhymes said it best in an interview with BAM Magazine. "Man, Cool J is a pioneer. He's the only old-school motherf**ker that's new school."
Words: Will "ill Will" Lavin
Increasingly dismissed by hip-hop fans as an old-school relic and a slick pop sellout, LL Cool J rang in the '90s with Mama Said Knock You Out, a hard-edged artistic renaissance that became his biggest-selling album ever. Part of the credit is due to producer Marley Marl, whose thumping, bass-heavy sound helps LL reclaim the aggression of his early days. Mama Said Knock You Out isn't quite as hard as Radio, instead striking a balance between attitude and accessibility. But its greater variety and more layered arrangements make it LL's most listenable album, as well as keeping it in line with more contemporary sensibilities. Marl's productions on the slower tracks are smooth and soulful, but still funky; as a result, the ladies'-man side of LL's persona is the most convincing it's ever been, and his ballads don't feel sappy for arguably the first time on record. Even apart from the sympathetic musical settings, LL is at his most lyrically acrobatic, and the testosterone-fueled anthems are delivered with a force not often heard since his debut. The album's hits are a microcosm of its range -- "The Boomin' System" is a nod to bass-loving b-boys with car stereos; "Around the Way Girl" is a lush, winning ballad; and the title cut is one of the most blistering statements of purpose in Hip Hop. It leaves no doubt that Mama Said Knock You Out was intended to be a tour de force, to regain LL Cool J's credibility while proving that he was still one of rap's most singular talents. It succeeded mightily, making him an across-the-board superstar and cementing his status as a rap icon beyond any doubt.
Words: Steve Huey
Run-D.M.C. was the first rap act to produce cohesive, fully realized albums, and LL Cool J was the first to follow in their footsteps. LL was a mere 17 years old when he recorded his classic debut album Radio, a brash, exuberant celebration of booming beats and B-boy attitude that launched not only the longest career in Hip Hop, but also Rick Rubin's seminal Def Jam label. Rubin's back-cover credit ("Reduced by Rick Rubin") is an entirely apt description of his bare-bones production style. Radio is just as stripped-down and boisterously aggressive as any Run-D.M.C. album, sometimes even more so; the instrumentation is basically just a cranked-up beatbox, punctuated by DJ scratching. There are occasional brief samples, but few do anything more than emphasize a downbeat. The result is rap at its most skeletal, with a hard-hitting, street-level aggression that perfectly matches LL's cocksure teenage energy. Even the two ballads barely sound like ballads, since they're driven by the same slamming beats. Though they might sound a little squared-off to modern ears, LL's deft lyrics set new standards for MCs at the time; his clever disses and outrageous but playful boasts still hold up poetically. Although even LL himself would go on to more intricate rhyming, it isn't really necessary on such a loud, thumping adrenaline rush of a record. Radio was both an expansion of rap's artistic possibilities and a commercial success (for its time), helping attract new multiracial audiences to the music. While it may take a few listens for modern ears to adjust to the minimalist production, the fact that it hews so closely to rap's basic musical foundation means that it still possesses a surprisingly fresh energy, and isn't nearly as dated as many efforts that followed it (including, ironically, some of LL's own).
Words: Steve Huey
It's a powerful album that gets underway with a bang, as LL raps, "No rapper can rap quite like I can," and makes his case throughout the album-opening "I'm Bad," a ferocious hardcore rap with a great DJ-scratched hook. While that song ranks among LL's best (and most popular) ever, Bigger and Deffer doesn't boast too many other standout moments, with the exception of "I Need Love." Its balladic tenderness comes as a late-album surprise, considering how ferocious LL sounds elsewhere here. Nonetheless, like it or loathe it, the song set the template for a number of such lovers raps that would bring LL much crossover success in the years to come. "I Need Love" aside, Bigger and Deffer is consistently solid, produced entirely by the L.A. Posse (Darryl Pierce, Dwayne Simon, and Bobby Erving) and filled with the sort of hard-hitting Hip Hop that was Def Jam's staple at the time. But while the album is mostly solid, it does lack the creative spark that had made Radio such an invigorating release only a couple years prior (the absence of Rick Rubin here is unfortunate). In those couple years since LL had put out Radio, rap music had taken big strides. Now, in 1987, LL had to contend with the likes of Eric B. & Rakim, Kool Moe Dee, Public Enemy, and Boogie Down Productions, with others like EPMD, Big Daddy Kane, Ice-T, and N.W.A on the horizon.
Words: Jason Birchmeier
Mr. Smith was the third comeback for LL Cool J, the third time he returned to commercial and creative strengths after being written off by many critics and fans. So it shouldn't come as a surprise that its follow-up, Phenomenon, finds LL coasting -- after all, after his two previous comeback albums, he allowed himself to slacken the pace a little bit and ride on his credentials. Fortunately, Phenomenon isn't nearly as weak as 14 Shots to the Dome or Bigger and Deffer, but it simply doesn't have the power of masterpieces like Radio and Mama Said Knock You Out. Essentially, it's a retread of Mr. Smith, offering the same laid-back soul jams and rolling party beats. There's a couple of killer singles, a few dogs, and a lot of filler -- more so than on Mr. Smith, in fact. Still, Phenomenon sounds good when it's playing, and even if it doesn't leave a lasting impression, it's a solid, professional effort that illustrates why LL is still in the game, 12 years after his first record.
Words: Stephen Thomas Erlewine
Released at a time when Hip Hop's anxieties about crossover success were at a fever pitch, Walking With a Panther found LL Cool J trying to reinvent his sound while building on the commercial breakthrough of Bigger and Deffer. Even though the album succeeded on both counts, it did so in a way that didn't sit well with Hip Hop purists, who began to call LL's credibility into question. Their fears about commercialism diluting the art form found a focal point in LL, the man who pioneered the rap ballad -- and there are in fact three ballads here, all of them pretty saccharine (and, tellingly, none of them singles). Apart from that, some of the concerns now seem like much ado about nothing, and there are numerous fine moments (and a few great singles) to be found on the album. It is true, though, that Walking With a Panther does end up slightly less than the sum of its parts. For one thing, it's simply too long; moreover, the force of his early recordings is missing, and there's occasionally a sense that his once-peerless technique on the mic is falling behind the times. Nonetheless, Walking With a Panther is still a fine outing on which LL proves himself a more-than-capable self-producer. The fuller, more fleshed-out sound helps keep his familiar b-boy boasts sounding fresh, and force or no force, he was in definite need of an update. On the singles -- "Going Back to Cali," "I'm That Type of Guy" (inexplicably left off All World), "Jingling Baby," and "Big Ole Butt" -- LL exudes an effortless cool; he's sly, assured, and in full command of a newfound sexual presence on record.
Words: Steve Huey
It's great to hear LL Cool J so unrestrained and so inspired on "Hush," one of the fantastic tracks on the more hit than miss The DEFinition. The track segues into the much lesser "I'm gonna do this to you, I'm gonna do that to you" Penthouse letter that's "Every Sip," but there's more here to bounce to than on 2002's mushy 10, and you can thank Timbaland for that. He's in the producer's chair for the banging kickoff single, "Headsprung," where LL meets the South with crunk beats and a slowed-down, syrup-sipper's chorus. He adds that Art of Noise-styled, mystic pan flute synth to "Can't Explain It" and a buzzing-in-your-ear melody to "Feel the Beat." LL responses to all these fresh sounds with vigor, spitting out the rhymes swiftly, and comes up with a couple things that make you go "dang!" without a trip or stumble. As good as Timbaland's beats are, it's 7 Aurelius who steals the show with his work on "Hush." It's more lovers' rap from LL, but Aurelius' beats and tricks should appeal to XY and XX chromosomes equally. Same goes for his team-up with R. Kelly, "I'm About to Get Her," making "Every Sip" the only romantic yawner. LL offers up "you rap for the thugs/I rap for the ladies" on the album, but there's some tough, near-"Mama Said Knock You Out"'s here, and from any hardcore thug's point of view, he's getting better at splitting the difference.
Words: David Jeffries
It's not the tour de force of Mama Said Knock You Out, but 14 Shots to the Dome is a solid effort finding LL Cool J maturing gracefully and strongly, without selling out. 14 Shots may not have sold as well as Mama either, but at least half of the album ranks with his best work.
Words: Stephen Thomas Erlewine
On the strength of the slow-burning Boyz II Men duet "Hey Lover," LL Cool J returned to the top of the charts with Mr. Smith, meaning the album is somewhat of a comeback for the veteran rapper. LL Cool J's skills had never deserted him, but his previous album, 14 Shots to the Dome, was an exercise in hardcore that only worked in fits and spurts. There are a couple of hard moments on Mr. Smith, but the album is at its most successful when he concentrates on his seductive, romantic side. LL has gotten a bit dirtier since the teenage days of "I Need Love," but he never steps over into the explicit, lewd come-ons of R. Kelly, preferring to suggest everything with a series of double entendres, metaphors, and analogies. Mr. Smith isn't a perfect record -- there are too many slack moments for it to qualify as one of his best -- but it proves that LL Cool J remained vital a decade after his debut.
Words: Stephen Thomas Erlewine
Wrapped in what is possibly the most prog rock sleeve design in Hip Hop history, Exit 13 marks LL Cool J's departure from Def Jam, the pioneering label the MC helped build. It begins with the blustery and overblown "It's Time for War," an embittered reclamation where he sounds more like he's shooing kids off his lawn than reigning over his territory. There are a couple tracks where LL sounds as on fire as ever, usually when his targets are specific rather than general, as on "You Better Watch Me" and "This Is Ring Tone M..." But the album's tone tilts toward the reactionary in its clear desire to sound just like a standard 2008 mainstream rap album, with unnecessary references to Petron and Cognac and in-your-face evidence that LL really wants you to know he's not behind the times: "Let's take our clothes off, bombs away/Pick a song -- Ne-Yo, Chris Brown, or Ray-J."
Words: Andy Kellman
When LL Cool J dubs his 2013 effort Authentic, the veteran rapper is referring to an album that's authentically LL Cool J circa 2013, and not one that's authentically Hip Hop. That's important to remember as the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink effort overflows with guests from every genre, like Public Enemy's Chuck D, blink-182's Travis Barker, Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello, and electro-rocker Z-Trip. That busy jumble of names is not only on the same album, but on the same track, as in "Whaddup," a pop-protest number that's admirable enough, and one that sounds more natural than "Accidental Racist," LL's much-maligned duet with Brad Paisley. Authentic gets its own Paisley team-up with "Live for You," a glossed-up, jukebox country redo of LL's "I Need Love," although when it comes to updates to Cool J's classics, the "Mama Said Knock You Out" return "We're the Greatest" is a better choice, with Eddie Van Halen wailing away as the rapper does a Mike Tyson impression, intentional or not. This variety hour on wax comes alive when characters like Bootsy Collins (making the party number "Bartender Please" sound Deee-Lite-ful), Snoop Dogg (on the club worthy "We Come to Party"), and Charlie Wilson (swaggerfest "New Love" wins just for the line "honk your horn if she's walking by right now") show up, but even so, the album doubles down on some of its best ideas, and Eddie, Snoop, Travis, and Uncle Charlie all return for lesser numbers. LL sounds rusty and a bit under-rehearsed as he belts out his iffy punch lines and motivational anthems, but he pours his heart into the pop numbers and sounds at home during the nostalgic throwbacks. Don't call it a comeback of any sort, but good intentions abound and in a primetime television star manner, the album's title remains true.
Words: David Jeffries