LL Cool J: From “Radio” to “Exit 13”

Ladies (and gentlemen) Love Cool James

Ladies (and gentlemen) Love Cool James

James Todd Smith was only 16 when he made history. The Queens New Yorker was pioneering a sound that was aggressive, artistic, and vibrant; the product of his hardwork landed him a deal with the (then) burgeoning record imprint Def Jam.

His debut Radio (1985), went on to become one of the archetypes of the hip-hop sound and helped create the Def Jam label (now Island/Def Jam) from the ground up. Much has happened in the three decades since LL Cool J (“Ladies Love Cool James”) took the mic and slammed into the collective consciousness of popular music; his music remains unflinchingly vital in its best moments however.

Until arguably Jay-Z, LL Cool J was the longest standing emcee who managed to reinvent himself in hip-hop with commercial and (sometimes) creative triumphs. He has since embraced a slew of other entrepreneurial endeavors (acting, fashion, endorsements); but music would always boomerang back to LL.

Yet, it can’t go without saying that LL often found himself sandwiched between being “relevant” and “artistically present”; to say that his art hasn’t suffered in certain instances wouldn’t be honest. But, each of his 12 records has shaped, precipitated, or followed events in hip-hop; he is both an auteur and a shrewd presence in his field.

LL’s first album of original material, Authentic (S-Bro Music Group), is street bound on April 30th, 2013. To celebrate the release of this icon’s unmistakable style making waves in this, his fourth decade, The QH Blend is looking back at all of his past works. The review of Authentic will appear here at the conclusion of this month. Let’s reminisce with the man, the legend, the “G.O.A.T.”, Mr. Smith.

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Radio

Radio:  1985
Production Cast: Rick Rubin, Jazzy Jay
Placements: Billboard 200 #46, Billboard R&B/Hip-Hop #6
Notable Singles: “I Need a Beat,” “I Can’t Live Without My Radio,” “Rock the Bells”
Synopsis: The sharp N.Y.C. wall of sound that emerged from Radio was defining as it was fresh. Over relentless breaks, beats, and loops, LL Cool J presented his persona: handsome, charming, street, and down. The words focused on talent presentation (“I Need a Beat”), boasts (“I Can Give You More”) and youthful humor (“You Can’t Dance”). LL’s flow was fine and though he still had growing to do, his skill shone through on “I Can’t Live Without My Radio.” Of its time, there is something timeless about Radio that has made it continually resonate with younger audiences in later years.
Ranking: Classic
[Watch “I Can’t Live Without My Radio“]

Bigger and Deffer

Bigger and Deffer

Bigger and Deffer:  1987
Production Cast: L.A. Posse, DJ Pooh
Placements: Billboard 200 #3, Billboard R&B/Hip-Hop #1
Notable Singles: “I’m Bad,” “I Need Love”
Synopsis: Not as enduring as Radio, Bigger and Deffer was far from a disappointment. LL’s tongue still lashed a rhyme fast and furious, as heard on “Go Cut Creator Go” and the banging “I’m Bad.” What made Bigger and Deffer transcend hip-hop was an unlikely sentimental piece, “I Need Love.” Cool and romantic, the hip-hop ballad was sincere in its plea for affection on both ends of a relationship. The first of its kind, it managed to give LL a wider audience, endearing him to traditional R&B and pop outlets. The legacy of “I Need Love” later could be traced through a variety of black music acts from Mary J. Blige to Drake.
Ranking: Above Average
[Watch “I Need Love“]

Walking With the Panther

Walking With the Panther

Walking With the Panther: 1989
Production Cast
: LL Cool J, Rick Rubin, DJ Cut Creator, The Bomb Squad
Placements: Billboard 200 #6, Billboard R&B/Hip-Hop #1
Notable Singles: “Going Back to Cali,” “Big Ole’ Butt,” “Jingling Baby”
Synopsis: With new thematic shifts happening in hip-hop (social, gangsta), LL didn’t adapt quickly enough. The pieces were right for a succinct return-to-form of Radio proportions (Rubin was on board again), but Walking With the Panther played as a party record late to the party. Despite a few Kangol-era dated duds, there were flashes of wit on the tongue-in-cheek “Going Back to Cali.” After a masterpiece and solid sophomore turn-in, LL was due one misfire on his junior record.
Ranking: Transitional
[Watch: “Going Back to Cali“]

Mama Said Knock You Out

Mama Said Knock You Out

Mama Said Knock You Out: 1990
Production Cast: Marley Marl, Bobby “Bobcat” Ervin
Placements: Billboard 200 #16, Billboard R&B/Hip-Hop #2
Notable Singles: “Mama Said Knock You Out,” “The Boomin’ System,” “Around the Way Girl”
Synopsis: “Don’t call it a comeback, I’ve been here for years!” If that statement didn’t say it all, nothing else could. The title cut went right to the heart of those that sniped LL was washed-up after one mistake on Walking With the Panther. Boldly contemporary, without being cloying, Mama Said Knock You Out was all killer, no filler. Whether reconstructing his suave groove for the ladies (“Around the Way Girl”), reclaiming his love for music (“The Boomin’ System”), or putting down a sensual spell (“Mr. Goodbar”), LL was at his best.
Ranking: Classic
[Watch: “Around the Way Girl“]

14 Shots to the Dome

14 Shots to the Dome

14 Shots to the Dome: 1993
Production Cast: QD III, Marley Marl, Bobby “Bobcat” Ervin, Andrew Zenable, Christopher Joseph Forte
Placements: Billboard 200 #5, Billboard R&B/Hip-Hop #1
Notable Singles: “How I’m Comin’,” “Pink Cookies In a Plastic Bag Getting Crushed By Buildings”
Synopsis: Hip-hop’s landscape kept changing; in addition to gangsta rap, a jazz influenced style was rearing its head via A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul. Caught between the two extremes, LL jumped right in and worked with both sub-genres of hip-hop magnificently. The title referred to the amount of songs on the long player aimed at the listener’s head. Rugged (“How I’m  Comin'”) and ironic (“Funkadelic Relic”), LL platformed his finest lyrics committed to record. In fact, one of his unsung masterpieces (“Pink Cookies”) was a fantastic allegory for sex in music. Its single version wasn’t as grand as its album rendition in retrospect. Misunderstood (still), 14 was LL’s last album to be completely realized and prepared in a proper way.
Ranking: Semi-Classic
[Watch “Pink Cookies In a Plastic Bag Getting Crushed By Buildings” (Single Edit)]

Mr. Smith

Mr. Smith

Mr. Smith: 1995
Production Cast: Rashad Smith, Chyskillz, Chad Elliott, Trackmasters, Easy Mo Bee
Placements: Billboard 200 #5, Billboard R&B/Hip-Hop #1
Notable Singles: “Doin’ It,” “Hey Lover,” “I Shot Ya”
Synopsis: A return to form, commercially, Mr. Smith appealed to every part of LL’s fanbase. One of his prime hip-hop ballads “Hey Lover” (w/ Boyz II Men) was a massive hit as much as the smutty delight of “Doin’ It” was. The ferocity of “I Shot Ya” stirred controversy as a supposed diss record toward fellow hip-hop icon, Tupac Shakur. In other spots LL was in exceptional shape on “Hip Hop” and “Mr. Smith”; but the beginning of his sound treading was apparent in other places on Mr. Smith as LL turned his head to other ventures.
Ranking: Above Average
[Watch “Doin’ It“]

Phenomenon

Phenomenon

Phenomenon: 1997
Production Cast: Sean Combs, The Hitmen, Trackmasters, Daven “Prestige” Vanderpool,  L.E.S., Erick Sermon (of EPMD), Curt Gowdy
Placements: Billboard 2o0 #7, Billboard R&B/Hip-Hop #4
Notable Singles: “Phenomenon,” “4, 3, 2, 1”
Synopsis: By the time Phenomenon dropped, LL had become a certified brand in a multitude of outlets. Because of this, the subsequent long player spun as an extension of that brand versus being a statement record. To LL’s credit, not everything had to be about statement’s per se; LL dealt in dapper party records and the deadly bounce of the titular song testified to that. Excusing “Phenomenon,” the breezy “Don’t Be Late, Don’t Come Too Soon” (w/ Tamia), and LL’s meanest diss song “4, 3, 2, 1,” the record pooled into a well of late 90s bad taste and excess.
Ranking: Transitional
[Watch: “Phenomenon“]

G.O.A.T.

G.O.A.T.

G.O.A.T.: 2000
Production Cast
: DJ Scratch, Ill Am, Rockwilder, Trackmasters, Havoc, Adam F, Vade Nobles, Antney
Placements: Billboard 200 #2, Billboard R&B/Hip-Hop #1
Notable Singles: “Imagine That,” “You and Me”
Synopsis: The title, an acronym for “Greatest of All Time” was no mere hype. LL had earned the moniker and as some tracks attested (“Queens Is”) LL could lay down material with any emcee in the game. G.O.A.T. stumbled from its inability to translate the real LL to the record versus a cardboard cut-out of himself for the 00’s. Because of the image superseding LL’s actual personality, the record caved in under an (overtly) aggressive mindset to prove his position instead of secure it. There are fair moments as heard on the reflective ballad in “You and Me” with Kelly Price; disappointingly, songs like “You and Me” are rare on this mean, murky set.
Ranking: Below Average
[Watch: “You and Me“]

10

10

10: 2002
Production Cast: The Neptunes, Poke & Tone, Ron Lawrence
Placements: Billboard 200 #2, Billboard R&B/Hip-Hop #1
Notable Singles: “Luv U Better,” “Paradise”
Synopsis: Even with its misnomer of 10, due to LL counting his hits collection All World (1996) as an album (?), the LP found LL supercharged. While LL maintained a gap between his own real-life self and that of his “LL Cool J” mask, the songs weren’t any less relaxed, modern, or enchanting. From the acidic “Fa Ha,” its use of “Rich Girl” by Hall & Oates was amazing, to the salacious “Lollipop,” LL doled out his most fun, flirty lines since “Around the Way Girl.” Even the features that previously drowned out LL on his albums, were restricted to just three; Amerie’s assistance on “Paradise” was the shining star of the batch. Bright and smiling, 10 was LL Cool J in good, if not perfect, form.
Ranking: Above Average
[Watch: “Paradise“]

The DEFinition

The DEFinition

The DEFinition: 2004
Production Cast: Timbaland, 7 Aurelius, R. Kelly, Eric Willaims, Teddy Riley, Marquinarius Holmes, Dame Grease
Placements: Billboard 200 #14, Billboard R&B/Hip-Hop #3
Notable Singles: “Headsprung,” “Hush”
Synopsis: A production showcase for a post-Under Construction (2002) Timbaland (“Headsprung”) and oo’s Murder Inc. knob-twirler 7 Aurelius (“Hush”), The DEFinition didn’t actually define anything for LL. It wasn’t as lush in its modish appeal as 10 and (thankfully) it wasn’t as harsh as G.O.A.T.; it fell somewhere between the two poles of those recordings. To its credit, it did have a bevy of club and car stereo system ready joints; LL just operated on auto-pilot lyrically for this entry.
Ranking: Transitional
[Watch: “Headsprung“]

Todd Smith

Todd Smith

Todd Smith: 2006
Production Cast: Trackmasters, Pharell, Scott Storch, Jermaine Dupri, Bink, Shea Taylor, Keezo Kane
Placements: Billboard 200 #6, Billboard R&B/Hip-Hop #2
Notable Singles: “Control Myself,” “Freeze”
Synopsis: Todd Smith had a promising reveal with the Afrika Bambaataa and Soulsonic Force “Planet Rock” sampled ripple of “Control Myself.” The single contained an alluring guest spot from Jennifer Lopez doing a return-favor for LL as he appeared on “All I Have” from her 2002 set, This Is Me…Then. What Todd Smith ended up expressing across its surface was a poor medley of tacky features (only “1 Fan” had LL alone). The guests not only washed LL out, the songs didn’t rise above their shiny, hollow exteriors. If anyone stated that LL Cool J had let his brand overcome his music in 2006, Todd Smith was finally evidence to support that idea.
Ranking: Poor
[Watch “Control Myself“]

Exit 13

Exit 13

Exit 13: 2008
Production Cast: Cue Beats, Dame Grease, Music Mystro, Street Runner, Suits & Ray Burghardt, Ryan Leslie, Illfonics, The-Dream, Tricky Stewart, DJ Scratch, Raw Uncut, Marley Marl, Frado & Absolut
Placements: Billboard 200 #9, Billboard R&B/Hip-Hop #3
Notable Singles: “Rocking with the G.O.A.T.,” “Baby,” “Feel My Heart Beat”
Synopsis: Down to its gigantic cover art, Exit 13, LL’s final Island/Def Jam album was due to deliver greatness. Instead, it managed to capture the good and bad things LL Cool J had gone through in his music travels. Far stronger than Todd Smith, especially in its past glory resurrection on “You Better Watch Me,” Exit 13 had many highlights. “Baby” was another of LL’s patented party starter/slow groove romancers that could fill floors and get hands-on-hips. But, stumbles included a misguided anthem rock-rap remix of “Baby”; the bland “It’s Time For War” just scowled through the music. With editing, Exit 13 could have been the record to sequel Mr. Smith or 10; instead it was a record that was a victim of its own uncertainty.
Ranking: Transitional
[Watch: “Baby“]

Authentic: 2013

Check Back at the of April 2013 for the review of LL Cool J's new LP

Check back at the end of April 2013 for the review of LL Cool J’s new LP

[Editor’s Note: The QH Blend Ranking System is as follows: “Classic,” “Semi-Classic,” “Above Average,” “Transitional,” “Below Average,” “Poor.” All of the reviewed recordings are in print, physically and digitally. For current information on LL Cool J, visit his official site.-QH]

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2 Comments

Filed under Hip-Hop

2 responses to “LL Cool J: From “Radio” to “Exit 13”

  1. Lin

    Greetings, My Writer Friend:

    This was a very, very… ummm… Cool breakdown of a artist w/ a career that has withstood the tests, tedium, temptations, slings & arrows of time. No bout a doubt it, LL has legs in an industry of boasts, braggarts, wannabes & one hit wonders. A true hip-hop classic cat, for real.

    One.

  2. Pingback: LL Cool J Gets “Authentic” On New LP | theqhblend

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