After taking hip-hop by storm in 1985 as a 17-year-old with his precociously hard-toned debut album, Radio
, LL Cool J returned with a softer style on this 1987 single - a track which gave birth to an improbable new form, the rap ballad. Stylistically influenced by 1970s rhythm and blues slow jams like The Chi-Lites' "Have You Seen Her" (later covered as a rap ballad by MC Hammer) or The Delfonics' "Didn't I Blow Your Mind," "I Need Love" gave LL an unexpected crossover hit and reconfigured the MC's persona away from conventional boasting and into something more introspective and romantic.
The rapper claimed to have written the lyric in a half hour while meditating about his loneliness in his grandmother's basement, and the words are striking for the vulnerability they convey. LL expresses regret for the women he's toyed with in the past, confessing that he realizes now his happiness depends on something emotionally more substantial. Given how many male-authored rap lyrics, from "Rapper's Delight
" onward, have centered on sexual self-aggrandizement and thinly veiled misogyny, the single was, thus, dramatic in its novelty. In the song's video, the MC dramatized this softer persona in a melodramatic display that juxtaposed scenes of celebrity excess with the rapper's melancholy direct appeal to the camera. While LL Cool J had already established a loyal b-boy following enamored with his hard-edged delivery, this softer performance struck a nerve with female audiences. Playgirl
magazine named him one of the ten sexiest men in popular music shortly after.