LL Cool J’s 10 greatest songs
Queens native James Todd Smith recorded his first hit, ”I Can’t Live Without My Radio,” in 1985 — back when current hip-hop titans like Kanye West and 50 Cent were in grade school. Then again, Smith, who dubbed himself LL Cool J (Ladies Love Cool James), was only 17 at the time, which may help account for his extraordinary longevity. In honor of LL’s 10th album, ”DEFinition,” due Aug. 31, here are 10 reasons to keep loving cool James.
”I Can’t Live Without My Radio” (”Radio,” 1985) The backing track consists solely of an overactive drum machine, complete with fake handclaps. But LL’s classic ode to a ”stereo thumping like a savage beast” still works, if only because of the passionate conviction of his delivery (if the lyrics feel dated, just pretend he’s talking about his iPod).
”Rock the Bells” (”Radio,” 1985) A classic demonstration of the Roland TR-808 drum machine’s rumbling bass (most recently heard on OutKast’s ”Ghetto Musick”), the deliciously funky ”Rock the Bells” (produced, like ”Radio,” by the genre-jumping Rick Rubin) is an early example of LL’s bottomless bravado. In one stanza, the teenager manages to diss all four of the ’80s biggest pop icons: ”It ain’t the glory days with Bruce Springsteen/ I’m not a virgin so I know I’ll make Madonna scream,” he raps, before moving on to Prince and Jacko.
”Big Ole Butt” (”Walking With a Panther,” 1989) Sir Mix-A-Lot, move to the, um, rear — when it comes to praising posteriors, LL was there first. ”Her name was Brenda/ She had the kinda booty I?d always remember,” he spits out, in a memorable non-rhyme, followed by an equally memorable justification for infidelity: ”I know I told you I’d be true/ But Brenda’s got a big ole butt/ And I’m leavin’ you.”
”Going Back to Cali” (”Walking With a Panther,” 1989) The 808 thumps again and jazzy horns blare as LL shows off his increasingly versatile style: He delivers the whole song in a seductive near-whisper. He also shows off his skill at crafting pop hooks that aren’t necessarily melodic — in this case, the assembled voices that chant ”I’m goin back to Cali, Cali, Cali.”
”Jack the Ripper” (”Walking With a Panther,” 1989) Was it smart for old-school rapper Kool Moe Dee to start a lyrical war with LL? Since we haven’t heard much from KMD in the last, oh, 15 years or so, perhaps not. ”Jack” is an unrelenting assault. ”A washed-up rapper needs a washer,” LL shouts, volunteering himself for that task.
”Mama Said Knock You Out” (”Mama Said Knock You Out,” 1990) Based on a real-life command from his grandma, LL’s greatest song is 4 minutes, 49 seconds of classic hip-hop braggadocio over a clattering, relentless breakbeat (courtesy, in part, of James Brown’s ”Funky Drummer”). An energized LL begins with one of his most quoted lines — ”Don’t call it a comeback/ I’ve been here for years” — and goes on to wreak unforgettable havoc on enemies real and imagined.
”Around the Way Girl” (”Mama Said Knock You Out,” 1990) With ”Mama” safeguarding him from accusations of going soft, LL was free to continue pioneering the kind of R&B-rap fusions that would grow to dominate pop radio in later years. Without this tune to lead the way — with its sunshine-and-sugar chorus and local-girl-praising lyrics — the Ja Rules of the world never would have found their sound.
”Jingling Baby (Remixed But Still Jingling)” (” ”Mama Said Knock You Out,” 1990) Propelled by a complexly layered beat (complete with ultra-funky organ solo) created by super-producer Marley Marl, ”Jingling” boasts one of LL’s simplest, but catchiest hooks: A woman chants, repeatedly, ”They’re jingling, baby”; he responds, repeatedly, ”Go ahead, baby.” That’s about it.
”Doin’ It” (”Mr. Smith,” 1995) LL’s best love songs are often not about love so much as, well, sex. Never was that more blatant than on the libidinous ”Doin’ It,” a downright nasty duet with female MC LeShawn, who sounds near-orgasmic throughout. ”Conventional methods of making love kind of bore me,” LL raps, before introducing a delightful, repeated non sequitur: ”I represent Queens/ She was raised out in Brooklyn.”
”The Ripper Strikes Back” (promo single, 1998) In 1998, a much-hyped young rapper named Canibus made the Moe Dee-style mistake of starting his career by taking on LL Cool J. The result is ”The Ripper Strikes Back,” in which a more mature LL shows he’s more raw than ever: ”You want the fame, now you’re famous overnight/ Famous for getting f—ed by a stick of dynamite.” Responding to Canibus’ claim that most of the older rapper’s fans were women, LL responds: ”Ninety-nine percent of his fans don’t exist.” By the way, Canibus’ first album subsequently flopped.