LL Cool J

January 14, 1968

LL Cool J Artistfacts

  • While younger hip-hop fans inevitably now think of LL Cool J (né James Todd Smith) as an icon of the "old school," lumping him accordingly with pioneers like Kurtis Blow, Run DMC, and Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, the rapper was, more accurately, a second-generation hip-hop star. LL emerged on Def Jam Records as a teenage phenomenon in the mid-1980s, a half-decade after the Sugarhill Gang had made rap a lucrative commodity with their hit, "Rapper's Delight."

    When Smith released his smash debut album, Radio, in 1985, he showed that hip-hop had already lived long enough to influence a new wave of black urban adolescents, but not so long that its aesthetics weren't open to further innovation. LL's inaugural album, and its ensuing siblings, redefined the genre's sound over the back half of the 1980s, showcasing the MC's hard-edged rap style over a stripped-down, rhythmically aggressive musical background, but also revealing how rap might conform neatly within the polished conventions of American popular music more broadly. But that's not to say Smith dismissed his ancestors outright. In the lyrics to Radio's effective title song, "I Can't Live Without My Radio," for instance, LL merged the best of early rap's emphasis on braggadocio and music-fueled partying with the sociopolitical bent Grandmaster Five and the Furious Five had introduced on "The Message" in 1982.
  • Yet just as soon as Smith had established his celebrity as rap's toughest sounding teenager, he abruptly changed directions with "I Need Love," the biggest-selling single from his sophomore LP, 1987's Bigger and Deffer. "I Need Love" was, improbably, a rap ballad that paired a sensitive Smith lyric over a synthesized keyboard slow jam. Rising to #14 on the Billboard Hot 100, the tune unearthed the potential for marrying rap with the softer side of contemporary rhythm and blues - a marriage that persists at the top of the pop charts still. Having crossed over to audiences beyond hip-hop loyals, LL continued with a string of hits in the late 80s, including "Going Back to Cali," "I'm That Type of Guy," and "Big Ole Butt." However, Smith's commercial success didn't always sit well with hip-hop fans who clung to the genre's underground ethos and inner city beginnings. In a show at Harlem's famed Apollo Theatre at the turn of the new decade, for instance, the venue's notoriously merciless crowd booed LL offstage. Undaunted, Smith returned with a triumphant, less glossy effort: 1990's raw LP, Mama Said Knock You Out, the title track to which announces, "Don't call it a comeback - I've been here for years." The album offered a series of sharp singles that have become LL standards, including "Around the Way Girl" and "Jingling Baby."
  • Since the early 1990s, LL Cool J has become less musically relevant to Hip-Hop's ever-changing aesthetics and variable tastes. He continues to record, but has attained more visibility as an actor, first in film, and now, more regularly, on CBS's television crime drama, NCIS: Los Angeles.
  • LL Cool J was the first rapper to be recognized at the Kennedy Center Honors, which is America's highest achievement in the field of performing. At the age of 49, LL Cool J became the youngest-ever recipient of the honor, when he was presented with his award at Washington DC's John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts on December 3, 2017.

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