Rap’s Immovable Object

The incredible longevity of LL Cool J.

Todd Smith by LL Cool J

When we first met LL Cool J, he was a baby-faced, muscle-bound 16-year-old wearing a Kangol cap. In early singles like “I Can’t Live Without My Radio” and “Rock the Bells,” he radiated youthful enthusiasm and assurance. Other rappers bragged because that’s what a rapper does. But in the way that only a teenager can, LL knew he was the shit, and that confidence made his boasts convincing even when they made no sense: “True as a wizard, just a blizzard, I ain’t takin’ no crap.” He wasn’t the most successful hip-hop act of his day—Run-DMC ruled the roost—but LL was the first solo artist to hint that this strange new creature on the pop music scene, the rapper, could be as big as any rock star.

Two decades later, at 37, LL has shed the Kangol, but he’s still got the baby face, and he’s still the biggest slab of beefcake in the rap game—a guy who looks like he could snap 50 Cent across his knee like a dry twig. On the eve of studio album No. 11, Todd Smith, LL has a hit-making record that no MC in history has come close to matching (27 Top 20 rap singles stretching from 1985 to the present). Few rappers survive to make a third album, let alone a seventh or 11th. Hip-hop’s ruthless pursuit of novelty—new voices, new styles, fresh sonic shocks—has frustrated the efforts of even the biggest stars to stay relevant. One by one, the giants have toppled, faded away, or made fools of themselves trying to keep current. In 2006, Run-DMC’s Reverend Run and Public Enemy’s Flavor Flav are reality TV stars. LL Cool J is rap star.

His streak looks likely to continue. Several songs from Todd Smith are currently streaming on the Def Jam Web site, and they’re top-notch LL Cool J songs. The album’s first single, “Control Myself,” faded after a few weeks on the charts, but it’s a danceable, funny, and casually innovative rap about lust in a nightclub, which finds LL delivering verses in a stylized staccato that harkens back to early singles like “Going Back to Cali” (1989): “She licked/ Off/ Her lip/ Gloss/ Her hips/ Tossed/ Back/ And forth.” (Watch the video here.) It’s a bravura move that Madonna and Prince have also made recently, calling the bluff of ‘80s revivalists by slyly alluding to their own ‘80s hits.

How did LL Cool J become hip-hop’s immovable object? He did it in part by, well, refusing to budge an inch. Through decades of fads and stylistic shifts, LL has remained a braggart nonpareil, with an unwavering message. “No rapper can rap quite like I can,” he crowed in 1987; “I’m the G.O.A.T./The Greatest of All Time,” he rapped 13 years later in the title track of his ninth album. Touting yourself is the classical rap posture, but it hasn’t always been in fashion. Unlike other MCs of his generation, LL never embarrassed himself by trend-hopping. He didn’t take up Black Nationalism in the late ‘80s, or guns and gang-banging in the early ‘90s. He has always been a rapper without a modifier—not a political rapper, not a gangsta rapper, not an old- or new-school rapper, just a rapper—and that purism has served him well.

In 1989, hip-hop was absorbed with Public Enemy-style politics and in the throes of a huge backlash against pop crossover acts. That year, LL released Walking With a Panther, a collection of gaudy, catchy pop-rap songs, booty anthems, and outsize b-boy boasts. (At a time when many rappers had traded in their flashy jewelry for black leather Africa medallions, the Walking With a Panther album cover featured a photo of a jungle cat wearing a gold chain as thick as a garden hose.) The slick veteran rapper Kool Moe Dee had been waging war on LL for years, and suddenly, everyone agreed with him: LL was a sellout, a phony, every rap purist’s favorite whipping boy.

A lesser rapper—a flimsier ego—might have been cowed into early retirement. LL, though, recorded Mama Said Knock You Out, the comeback album that he insisted wasn’t a comeback at all, and by the fall of 1990 he was far more beloved than he’d ever been. He became the consensus rapper, an MC with unprecedented broad appeal. (In an interview, Public Enemy’s Chuck D. praised Mama Said Knock You Out as the one album he could happily listen to in the car with his wife and kids.) Today, it’s clear that the record not only resuscitated LL’s career, it set the template for pop-rap. Its booming, bass-heavy songs (produced by Marley Marl) were tough enough to pass muster with hip-hop’s core audience and catchy enough for Top 40 radio and MTV and, crucially, clubs—a formula embraced by every major rap star since, from the Notorious B.I.G. to Jay-Z to 50 Cent. As for LL’s chief tormenter: Kool Moe Dee hasn’t put out a record since 1994 and was last seen playing a bartender in the Britney Spears movie Crossroads.

LL had telegraphed his pop ambitions from Minute 1. In “Rock the Bells,” he dissed the usual suspects—wack MCs, “jerricurl suckers wearin’ high-heel boots”—but in the song’s penultimate verse he took aim at bigger targets, daring to imagine that the rulers of the pop charts could be dethroned by a rapper. In 1985, LL Cool J saw the future of rock ’n’ roll, and it was … LL Cool J.

The bells are whippin’ and rippin’ at your body and soul
Why do you like Cool J., we like rock and roll
Cause it ain’t the glory days with Bruce Springsteen
I’m not a virgin, so I know I’ll make Madonna scream
You hated Michael and Prince all the way, ever since
If their beats were made of meat, then they would have to be mince

The rhymes are clunky—he’d improve with age. LL has never been one of rap’s elite lyricists, but his skill and daring as a song-crafter are hugely underrated; he’s done as much as anyone to push the boundaries of the form, showing that rap could encompass as many modes, and moods, as any other kind of popular song. He’s delivered raps in all registers: from a whisper to a scream. In 1987, LL released one of the most audacious hip-hop singles ever, ” I Need Love,”a full-fledged rap ballad, with plaintive synthesizer chords and lyrics dyed a deep shade of purple. (“I’ll lay down my jacket so you can walk over a puddle/ I’ll give you a rose, pull out your chair before we eat.”) Ever since, LL has been rap’s pre-eminent balladeer—not just a sexed-up “playa,” but a romantic.

It’s worth remembering just how outrageous the idea of a hip-hop love song was a couple of decades back. At first, rap seemed like nothing less than a revolt against the decades-long tyranny of the love song. (In one of his most famous verses, Chuck D made just that case: “You singers are spineless/ As you sing your senseless songs to the mindless/ Your general subject, love, is minimal/ It’s sex for profit.”) But LL imagined that rappers could beat singers at the own game, and he was right. Over the years, he’s recorded not only boudoir fare worthy of Barry White (“Doin’ It,” “Six Minutes of Pleasure”), but at least one song, “Around the Way Girl” (1990), whose charm and craft ranks with “I Want To Hold Your Hand” or any other classic you can name: a sun-dappled love song for the ages.

That song is explicitly addressed to girls in the hood (“Lisa, Angela, Pamela, Rene/ I love you, you’re from around the way”), LL’s core demographic. Years before anyone else got wise, LL decided to let other rappers fight over the male audience while lavishing love, and tenderness, and plentiful Mack Daddy moves on women—black women, in particular. In the process he built up one of hip-hop’s most loyal fan bases, making sure to stay just gruff enough to appease the fellas. It was good business, but also socially significant, helping bust up the gender gap that for years made the hip-hop audience the most disproportionately male this side of death metal. Judging by “Control Myself,” the 2006 model LL shows no intention of conceding his female following to any of hip-hop’s current Casanovas. After all, remember what LL Cool J stands for: Ladies Love Cool James. He gave himself that nickname more than 20 years ago, a teenager’s bluster that became a marketing strategy, a credo, and a statement of fact—the tagline for hip-hop’s longest running show.