Happy 50th birthday, LL Cool J: six essential tracks

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LL Cool J
LL Cool J arrives at the 40th Annual Kennedy Center Honors on Dec. 2, 2017 in Washington, D.C. (Ron Sachs/Getty Images)

LL Cool J was born James Todd Smith in Bay Shore, N.Y., on Jan. 14, 1968 and grew up in Queens. He began rapping at age nine, and by age 16, Smith was making demo tapes and sending them to labels, eventually getting signed to Def Jam Records under his stage name, LL Cool J (short for Ladies Love Cool James).

In his music career, LL Cool J has released 13 studio albums and two greatest hits compilations, and he's won numerous awards, including two Grammys, two MTV Video Music Awards (including a Lifetime Achievement Award in 1997), four NAACP Image Awards, and three Soul Train Music Awards. In 2017, LL Cool J became the first hip hop artist to receive a Kennedy Center honor.

Beyond music, LL Cool J is an accomplished businessperson and an esteemed actor, currently starring as special agent Sam Hanna in the CBS series NCIS: Los Angeles.

As LL Cool J celebrates his 50th birthday, The Current's Sean McPherson has complied this list of six landmark LL Cool J tracks (in no particular order) along with commentary on why these tracks are essential.

"I Need Love" (1987)

As one of the first true sex symbols of the hip hop genre, LL Cool J's romantic tunes were a real coup stylistically. But they rarely came off as cheesy. LL Cool J always came out like an artist who truly wanted to rock the party and make some love jams.

"Mama Said Knock You Out" (1991)

Contrary to the first line, this song is a comeback. And it is the ultimate comeback jam. I know he had a hit the year before, but he hadn't had a hit this hard in eons.

"Going Back to Cali" (1988)

LL's delivery is silky smooth on this track, but there's a menace and an assuredness that generally someone can't exude when whispering. LL can — that's why he's a legend and you're whoever the heck you are.

"Rock the Bells" (1986)

Who cares that there isn't a single GD bell in this whole tune, this song is an absolute hip hop essential. This song came in a series of Rick Rubin-produced tracks that absolutely inverted the nightclubbing glamour vibe of hip hop and instead glorified the raw energy of an emcee on little more than a drum groove. It's still a revelation today, but it was a revolution in '86.

"Around the Way Girl" (1990)

I struggled with throwing this tune on the list. This is one of my favorite LL Cool J songs of all time, but I wasn't positive if it was essential. But I do find that this does represent LL glorifying and celebrating a female character with more nuance than many other hip-hop songs (including his own). This song describes a neighborhood woman and celebrates many different details of her life and her relationships. There's not a lot of songs in any genre that do that, so for that, I believe it's essential.

"I Can't Live Without My Radio" (1985)

Sometimes an artist arrives with a fully formed thesis, and LL did just that — Track 1, Side 1 of his first full-length, Radio. This song carries a bravado and b-boy swagger that realigned the identity of hip hop. I honestly can't think of a more confident and strident arrival from any rapper in history.

Resources

LL Cool J - official site


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