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February 27, 2013

LL Cool J's Rap-Superstar Blueprint

by  |  February 27, 2013

LL Cool J is hard as hell. Those words from the intro to "Rock the Bells" are seared into the skull of every rap fan over 30. They were both boast and battle cry -- indeed, the Queens rapper born James Todd Smith immediately followed up by declaring his willingness to battle anybody, anywhere, anytime.

If you're under 30, you're probably most familiar with those words as the title of the preeminent classic rap festival in America. Credit the pervasive influence of the lip-smacking bully of the block from Farmer's Blvd that the festival organizers would take their name from Uncle L, but it's difficult to reconcile modern-day Mr. Smith with the bloodthirsty destroyer of his early years. He's a paragon of rap respectability now: the host of the Grammy's, the star of NCIS: Los Angeles, the Pharoah of FUBU, the muscle-bound co-author of The Platinum Workout. (Tagline: "Nobody rocks harder, nobody works out smarter.")

But for the first 15 years of his career, LL Cool J was widely regarded as one of the most ferocious rappers on the planet. His debut, Radio was Def Jam's first long-player, eventually earning the fledgling label Platinum footing. A bridge between old and new school, LL and Rick Rubin wrote the template for transmuting park-jam braggadocio into radio anthems. The album even fittingly included the song "I Can't Live Without My Radio," which remains the most iconic rap ever wrote about the FM airwaves.

The first contemporary crossover for-the-ladies jam? That honor goes to LL too, the author of "I Need Love,", the man whose initials stood for "Ladies Love Cool James." What was most incredible was his gift for balancing hard/soft dynamics. "Hey Lover" could come directly after "I Shot Ya," one of the greatest posse cuts ever assembled. "Around the Way Girl" could follow the rope-a-dope that was "Mama Said Knock You Out."

Before Sir Mix-a-Lot wrote "Baby Got Back," LL deployed "Big Ole Butt." The Notorious B.I.G.'s "Going Back to Cali" was a direct homage to LL's first iteration. And before Jay-Z wrote the blueprint for rap longevity, LL offered him the first draft, demonstrating mass appeal without sacrificing underground credibility. When Jay aimed scorched-earth salvos at Nas, he was taking a page from the LL playbook: "Jack the Ripper" mercilessly ravaged Kool Moe Dee, while his verse on "4,3,2,1" sent Canibus down for the count. No one could snatch the mic off his arm.

LL has spent most of the last decade in Hollywood, cementing his legacy as one of the genre's greatest crossover success stories alongside Jay, Will Smith and Ice Cube. Regardless of the reception of April's Authentic, his 13th record, his legacy remains indelible, filled with tunnel bangers and puppy-love ballads, blistering fury and inordinate sensitivity. Long Live Cool James.

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