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One of hip-hop's longest-running successes, LL Cool J arrived at the dawn of the genre as a fresh-faced b-boy and spent the ensuing decades consistently evolving and expanding the range of his talents. Streetwise and romantic early rap hits in the '80s gave way to more versatile musical approaches and mainstream breakthroughs in the '90s and 2000s with multimillion-selling albums like 1990's Mama Said Knock You Out. LL transitioned from rap superstar to multifaceted Renaissance man as the years went on, establishing himself as an actor, author, philanthropist, and music industry insider alongside his work as an artist. In addition to winning multiple Grammys for his music, LL Cool J was the recipient of the NAACP Image Award and a Kennedy Center Honoree, all while appearing in dozens of films and maintaining a television role on the crime drama series NCIS: Los Angeles and hosting the competitive reality show Lip Sync Battle. In 2021, Cool J was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, recognized for his musical output that helped shape rap on the whole.
LL Cool J was born James Todd Smith in 1968 and raised in Queens, New York. He began rapping at age ten and shortly thereafter his grandfather -- he had been living with his grandparents since his parents divorced when he was four -- bought him DJ equipment and musical gear and he began making home demos of his songs. Eventually, he sent these demo tapes to record companies, attracting the interest of Def Jam, a fledgling label run by New York University students Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin. Def Jam signed LL Cool J (his stage name an abbreviated form of Ladies Love Cool James) and released his debut, "I Need a Beat," as their first single in 1984. The record sold over 100,000 copies, establishing both the label and the rapper. Cool J dropped out of high school and recorded his debut album, Radio. Released in 1985, Radio was a major hit and it earned considerable praise for how it shaped raps into recognizable pop-song structures. On the strength of "I Can't Live Without My Radio" and "Rock the Bells," the album went platinum in 1986. The following year, his second album, Bigger and Deffer, shot to number three due to the ballad "I Need Love," which became one of the first pop-rap crossover hits.
Cool J's knack for making hip-hop as accessible as pop was one of his greatest talents, yet it was also a weakness since it opened him up to accusations of being a sellout. Taken from the Less Than Zero soundtrack, 1988's "Goin' Back to Cali" walked the line with ease, but 1989's Walking with a Panther was not greeted warmly by most hip-hop fans. Although it was a Top Ten hit and spawned the gold single "I'm That Type of Guy," the album was perceived as a pop sell-out effort, and on a supporting concert at the Apollo, he was booed. Cool J didn't take the criticism lying down -- he struck back with 1990's Mama Said Knock You Out, the hardest record he ever made. He supported the album with a legendary live acoustic performance on MTV Unplugged, and on the strength of the Top Ten R&B singles "The Boomin' System" and "Around the Way Girl" (number nine, pop) as well as the hit title track, Mama Said Knock You Out became his biggest-selling album, establishing him as a pop star in addition to a rap superstar. He soon landed roles in the films The Hard Way (1991) and Toys (1992), and he also performed at Bill Clinton's presidential inauguration in 1993. Mama Said Knock You Out kept him so busy that he didn't deliver the follow-up, 14 Shots to the Dome, until the spring of 1993. Boasting a harder gangsta rap edge, 14 Shots initially sold well, debuting in the Top Ten, but it was an unfocused effort that generated no significant hit singles. Consequently, it stalled at gold status and hurt his reputation considerably.
Following the failure of 14 Shots to the Dome, Cool J began starring in the NBC sitcom In the House. He returned to recording in 1995, releasing Mr. Smith toward the end of the year. Unexpectedly, Mr. Smith became a huge hit, going double platinum and launching two of his biggest hits with the Boyz II Men duet "Hey Lover" and "Doin' It." At the end of 1996, he released the greatest-hits album All World, while Phenomenon appeared one year later. G.O.A.T.: The Greatest of All Time, released in 2000, reached the top of the album charts, and 2002's 10 featured one of his biggest hits in years, "Luv U Better." With the help of producer Timbaland, he unleashed the tough DEFinition album in 2004, just as his James Todd Smith clothing line was hitting the malls. "Control Myself," a hit single featuring Jennifer Lopez, prefaced 2006's Todd Smith album. His 2008 effort Exit 13 would be his last album for Def Jam as the rapper found work as a primetime television star, landing a starring role on CBS' NCIS: Los Angeles.
In 2013, he returned to recording, first making news with the track "Accidental Racist," his much-maligned duet with country star Brad Paisley. Another Paisley duet landed on Cool J's 2013 album Authentic, a star-studded effort with Eddie Van Halen, Snoop Dogg, and Charlie Wilson appearing as guests. In addition to a growing film career, the 2010s and 2020s found Cool J inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, awarded a Kennedy Center Honor, and being immortalized with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine