vulture guides

An Honest Evaluation of LL Cool J’s Entire Career

Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Last week, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame announced its 2019 inductees, a class of 7 acts culled from 15 nominees spanning the pop spectrum. For the fifth time in a decade, LL Cool J was left stranded in the green room, his journey to the shores of Cleveland (or sometimes Barclays Center) impeded by the selection committee’s opaque voting process. With his latest rebuffing, only Chic and Chuck Willis have been nominated more times without being inducted.

LL Cool J matters because he is a trailblazer, but if there’s a case to be made for his inclusion in an institution that purports to recognize artists for “having contributed over 25 years of musical excellence,” there’s an equally compelling one for his exclusion. While his most lasting contributions to American music are undersold (a hip-hop … album?!?! A rap song … for women?!?!), his legacy is as a thoroughly middlebrow mainstay of celebrity culture, one who, with a near-absolute dearth of nuance, came to embody everything transcendent and ridiculous about hip-hop at once.

For younger viewers who’ve watched the St. Albans, Queens-born James Todd Smith smirk his way through a Grammys telecast or Lip Sync Battle, a natural question might be: Why? Why does the “Headsprung” guy get to film ten seasons of NCIS: Los Angeles? Why does the rapper who made “Accidental Racist” have eight NAACP Image Awards? The most charitable answer is that he was a pioneering artist with genuine rap bona fides who gradually embraced the role of cultural ambassador. And while this ultimately resulted in such Low Church skunks as “Control Myself” and Deliver Us From Eva, the importance of a vaguely handsome, vaguely likable translator of hip-hop for the American Top 40 audience is unquantifiable.

LL Cool J, the icon, is a malleable meathead, a purveyor of stone-cold old-school classics, novelty hits, and spoken-word melodrama. He manufactured dumb beefs and talked about his dick endlessly. He was an impersonal, invulnerable narrator such that his on-record persona never really exceeded that of Big Rap Star. He was a role model in that he didn’t glorify drugs and crime, but half the time that’s because he was too busy making goo-goo eyes at your girlfriend.

With LL, what you see is what you get, and a lot of the time that’s a musclebound B-list action star making duckfaces at the camera. To his credit, he leaned into it, and even when he committed to Hollywood sludge, he did a better job at keeping a foot in the rap game at the same time than Will Smith or even Ice Cube did. With massive hits across multiple decades, no one has been as good — or at least as relevant — over as long of a period. For better or worse, he was a mirror onto the world of hip-hop, producing dollar-store variants of whatever was innovative at the moment. Curious about what was going on in rap in 1989, 1997, or 2006? Might as well check in with LL’s discography.

Radio (1985)

Had LL simply released his Rick Rubin-helmed debut Radio and retreated back into his grandmother’s basement, the impact still would have been earth-shattering. A record with virtually zero precedent, its 11 tracks made Sugarhill-core juke jams sound like ancient relics, with a scope that made even Run-D.M.C. seem like a glorified maxi-single in comparison. Rubin’s application of a rock album’s lens to LL’s battle rhyme templates was pivotal to rap’s being taken seriously by club kids and Village Voice writers, establishing the groundwork for Def Jam Recordings’ world domination.

Given how today’s teenage rappers are anointed on the grounds of mere precocity, that Radio was executed by a 17-year-old high school dropout is damn near miraculous. LL arrived with the fully-formed persona of a street-smart b-boy with a lover-man streak, but before anything else he was an entertainer, one whose charismatic passion manifested in a slew of punchlines and well-plotted narratives. He wields a fluid, nimble flow that will stun listeners only familiar with his later hits; “Rock the Bells” and “Dear Yvette” are technical triumphs by any standard.

Radio is almost simplistic in its industrial minimalism. The songs all utilize identical instrumentation, and notably, none are sample-based. The abundance of empty space is almost disorienting — there are long instrumental breaks, big cymbals that crash and echo, guitars that play isolated chords then disappear. Within this framework, LL takes liberties with form: “I Can Give You More” is composed of 6 12-bar verses, whereas “I Can’t Live” is 3 verses of an unwieldy 22 bars apiece. Were Radio remastered today, they’d probably turn the vocals up, but that’s not imperative so much as contextual. In any event, his debut is key to understanding LL as an artist: before everything else, he was really just a kid who loved his radio.

Keepers & Sleepers: “Rock the Bells,” “I Need a Beat,” “That’s a Lie”

Bigger and Deffer (1987)

The critical distinction between Radio and its worthy follow-up Bigger and Deffer is the L.A. Posse production unit’s liberal deployment of samples. With its slick “Theme from S.W.A.T.” interpolation, “I’m Bad” sounds downright galactic compared to Rubin’s bare-bones compositions; “The Do Wop” is built around a Moonglows vocal bite. Like the music, LL’s storytelling is a bit more layered, and he’s having plenty of fun despite the easily parodied deadpan of “I Need Love,” the album’s breakthrough moment. In all, B.A.D. is a rock-solid outing that falls just short of its predecessor’s indelible statement.

Keepers & Sleepers: “I’m Bad,” “Get Down,” “Go Cut Creator Go,” “I Need Love”

Walking With a Panther (1989)

By 1989, rap had become specialized enough that LL’s jack-of-all-trades skill set failed to offer the thrills of Rakim’s lyrical acrobatics or Public Enemy and Boogie Down Productions’ trenchant social commentary; De La Soul, Gang Starr, Geto Boys, and Kool G Rap all arrived that year with legitimately world-building debuts. The dominant narrative around Walking With a Panther is that it was so soft and so poorly received that it inspired LL to team up with DJ Marley Marl to mount a riveting comeback, and while one can’t denounce a 21-year-old rapper for failing to surpass It Takes a Nation of Millions or 3 Feet High and Rising, that’s more or less true.

Produced by LL and remnants of the L.A. Posse following a contract dispute, Walking With a Panther clocks in at a whopping 77 minutes on CD (“Jack the Ripper” was inexplicably only included on the 85-minute cassette version) and desperately lacks the MC’s cocksure teenage charm. Its stories are boring and formulaic, populated by faceless gold-diggers and neighborhood hardheads, and reliant upon predictable third-verse narrative twists. LL’s persona lapses into a flippant don’t-leave-your-girl-’round-me vengefulness, and the three attempts at recapturing the success of “I Need Love” — “You’re My Heart,” “One Shot at Love,” and “Two Different Worlds” — are abominable slogs. The delectable “Going Back to Cali,” an ideal soundtrack for a Bret Easton Ellis adaptation (which it was), keeps it from being a total wash, but Panther stumbles more than it walks.

Keepers & Sleepers: “Droppin’ Em,” “I’m That Type of Guy,” “Going Back to Cali”

Mama Said Knock You Out (1990)

The dawn of the ’90s found 22-year-old LL in precarious straits: Walking With a Panther was certified platinum within two months of its release, and was roundly detested by hip-hop fans. The solution? Joining forces with the infallible Marley Marl for one of the finest collections of rap singles ever assembled.

Mama Said Knock You Out’s hits are diverse and bulletproof, making the best case for LL as a generalist. With its proto-chipmunk soul and earnestly contoured exposition, “Around the Way Girl” became a summertime classic that enacted an enduring influence on the American lexicon. “Jingling Baby (Remixed But Still Jingling),” a mulligan of Panther’s fifth single, stands among the preeminent house party rap jams. The brilliant title track is fearsome and infectious.

While the deep cuts are a bit of a mixed bag — “Milky Cereal” is good-natured but emblematic of the lazy gimmicks that plague subsequent albums, “Illegal Search” is an expressive headbanger — Mama Said Knock You Out announced an authoritative veteran with a career-defining blockbuster.

Keepers & Sleepers: “Around the Way Girl,” “Mama Said Knock You Out,” “Jingling Baby (Remixed But Still Jingling)”

14 Shots to the Dome (1993)

In hindsight, 14 Shots to the Dome seems like an outlier — it’s LL’s hardcore requisite rap outing — but given where it falls in his catalog and what was going on in rap circa 1993, it’s par for the course conceptually; imagine Hit Squad meets Fu-Schnickens meets Onyx meets Cypress Hill. I’m a 14 Shots apologist (if only because I like all of those groups), but with its sleigh bells and smokin’ horn samples it’s an objectively minor, paint-by-numbers ’93 rap album, the result being that LL took a Back Seat during a momentous year for East Coast hip-hop.

LL may have had a few too many yes-men in his corner for 14 Shots. How else to explain “Pink Cookies in a Plastic Bag Getting Crushed by Buildings,” an absurdist mess that deploys the names of contemporary rap groups as sex metaphors, proclaiming with absolute humorlessness, “The act of making love is like pink cookies in a plastic bag getting crushed by buildings?”

14 Shots was produced by Marley Marl (who then went into hibernation for the remainder of the decade) and Quincy Jones’s 24-year-old son QDIII. There’s an interesting analogy to be made with Lords of the Underground’s debut Here Come the Lords, which shared a release date with 14 Shots and was also produced by Marley Marl and his protégé K-Def. The Cherokee-rattling funk of the two records is near indistinguishable, and LOTUG even appear on 14 Shots’s “(NFA) No Frontin’ Allowed.” But listeners perceived LL’s double-time flows as put-on, and where Here Come the Lords was embraced as a cult classic, 14 Shots was lionized by Robert Christgau as “proof we didn’t need that his talent is as phat as an elefant’s phart and his brain is the size of a pea.”

Keepers & Sleepers: “Funkadelic Relic,” “All We Got Left Is the Beat,” “Diggy Down” (which might be a top 5 LL track even though it’s blatant Das EFX karaoke)

Mr. Smith (1995)

Mr. Smith is a departure from the standpoint that, with a few exceptions, it’s the album on which LL became a pop singles artist. It’s also one of his three most important albums, along with Radio and Mama Said Knock You Out, although those albums’ dyed-in-the-wool defenders would be offended by the association. If 14 Shots cast LL as a tired wave-chaser, Mr. Smith aimed for the top of the charts and spent the better part of two years there.

With production handled by the Trackmasters, who went on to produce Big Willie Style in 1997, Mr. Smith could be considered a dry run for Will Smith’s solo rap career of slow-flowing over obvious ’80s interpolations. The slow tracks are smooth without the sanitized sheen of the Trackmasters’ later work. While the juxtaposition of “Hey Lover,” and “Loungin’” with the rugged “Life As … ” and “I Shot Ya” is a bit jarring, it works. “Hollis to Hollywood” is one of LL’s worst concept songs, doing the “Milky Cereal” thing with movie titles.

It’s easy to clown Mr. Smith — it’s campy, it’s inconsistent, he talks about butter a lot. But while it isn’t a seminal rap record, I can’t imagine mid-’90s pop without it; “Doin’ It” is both ridiculous schmaltz and a luscious rap song that sounds like a 5:45 p.m. sunset over Gotham City. My only substantive beefs are that LL’s rapping kind of falls off a cliff here (the rigid, lethargic flows are worlds removed from “Rock the Bells”) and that the track list includes the “I Shot Ya” posse cut remix, but not the “Loungin’” remix with Total.

Keepers & Sleepers: “Make It Hot,” “Hey Lover,” “Doin’ It,” “I Shot Ya (Remix)”

Phenomenon (1997)

Phenomenon is a retread of Mr. Smith except that it was executive produced by Puff Daddy, which just means that the samples are even less imaginative, such as the weird pseudo-cover of “Candy Girl” featuring Ricky Bell and Ralph Tresvant. Eight of the ten tracks have guests, star-driven collaborations in which the songs themselves are afterthoughts. LeShaun reprises her “Doin’ It” role but fails to rekindle the magic on the torturous “Hot, Hot, Hot,” and the Canibus beef kicked off by “4,3,2,1” wasn’t any more interesting than whatever perceived slight spurred the “I Shot Ya” saga. While “Father” is noteworthy for being one of the only times LL became genuinely introspective on wax, it doesn’t make the song any easier to listen to.

Keepers & Sleepers: “Phenomenon”

G.O.A.T. Featuring James T. Smith: The Greatest of All Time (2000)

G.O.A.T. has the distinction of being LL’s first and (to date) only album to top the Billboard 200, although its success was relatively short-lived and it undersold its predecessors. Neither the blippy faux-Timbaland club tracks nor the plodding faux-Ruff Ryders locker room cuts supply much to recommend. LL wavers from banal O.G. moralizing to tales of dousing his dick with champagne, leaving an overmatched guest roster to bail him out. “Imagine That” rivals “Hot, Hot, Hot” as the lowlight of his singles catalog, a cringeworthy S&M soliloquy which proposes xeroxing two-dimensional copies of a woman’s nether parts. “Take It Off” is a shameless “Vivrant Thing” knockoff, and the Amil duet “Hello” sounds like a cruel joke.

Keepers & Sleepers: “Fuhgidabowdit”

10 (2002)

10 is LL’s tenth album only if you include the 1996 greatest-hits package All World, but who’s counting. “Luv U Better,” one of his biggest international hits, serves as a sturdy foundation, and “Paradise” was an acceptable follow-up even if the Keni Burke sample had already been immortalized in “Take You There” and “Born 2 Live” a decade prior. The rest can reasonably be qualified as competent, lukewarm filler, but taken together it suggests a legacy artist aging gracefully into his mid-30s.

Keepers & Sleepers: “Luv U Better,” “Amazin’”

The DEFinition (2004)

Six of The DEFinition’s 11 tracks were produced by Timbaland on a layover between “Dirt Off Your Shoulder” and “Promiscuous,” headlined by the inescapable “Headsprung.” Perhaps more significantly, it contains the last great LL Cool J single, the 7 Aurelius-assisted ballad “Hush,” which spoke to me as a 14-year-old and dictated many of my unrealistic relationship expectations as a 28-year-old. There are also two contributions from Rap-A-Lot Records refugee N.O. Joe, an architect of Scarface and UGK’s vintage sounds, but they’re woefully conventional.

Keepers & Sleepers: “Headsprung,” “Hush”

Todd Smith (2006)

Todd Smith is the point where LL albums officially became cross-promotional events. There are guests on every song; my research suggests that it is the only album in the history of music to feature Jamie Foxx, Freeway, and Mary Mary (2006 was weird). The Juelz Santana song is literally called “It’s LL and Santana.” I liked “We’re Gonna Make It,” but turns out it was on the Madea’s Family Reunion soundtrack, and Oddisee flipped that sample better anyway. They had to tack Ne-Yo’s “So Sick” remix onto the end because for all of Todd Smith’s lab-tested pablum, it still didn’t have a hit (I’m aware that “Control Myself” reached No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100, but come on).

Keepers & Sleepers: “Down the Aisle,” “We’re Gonna Make It”

Exit 13 (2008)

Toward the end of the George W. Bush era, LL became unhappy at Def Jam. Exit 13 was bizarrely promoted as the final fulfillment of his contract, which of course meant that literally no one was invested in its success. While structured as a back-to-basics aesthetic comeback, it’s another Mr. Smith-esque hodgepodge of neo-boom bap and R&B crossovers. The faux-woke “Mr. President” is an exercise in eye-rolling both sides-ism (“I’m not Republican or Democrat / I’m independent and I want the facts”), and the weird patriotism kick “American Girl” yields such pearls as “American girls are somethin’ to see / I bet Thomas Jefferson would love BET.” This was a tax write-off.

Keepers & Sleepers: “Rocking with the G.O.A.T.,” “Speedin’ on da Highway / Exit 13”

Authentic (2013)

Authentic is lifetime-achievement-award bait, nondescript enough that it could just as easily be a Herbie Hancock or Barbra Streisand or Tony Bennett record. The guest list includes (spins wheel) Fitz and the Tantrums, Eddie Van Halen, Earth, Wind & Fire, Travis Barker, and Tom Morello, who all show up to pay tribute to LL because they have heard of him. It’s not terrible as far as genre-dabbling goes, it just wasn’t made for anyone to actually listen to.

Keepers & Sleepers: “Something About You (Love the World)”

The Top 5 LL Cool J Guest Appearances:

1. EPMD feat. LL Cool J, “Rampage” (1990)
Slow down, baby!

2. Craig Mack feat. Notorious B.I.G., LL Cool J, Busta Rhymes, and Rampage, “Flava in Ya Ear (Remix)” (1994)
I hesitate to include this because LL has the worst verse by a pretty wide margin, but it’s the “Flava in Ya Ear” remix, so it makes the list.

3. Jennifer Lopez feat. LL Cool J, “All I Have” (2002)
IT MAKES A CAT NERVOUS, THE THOUGHT OF SETTLIN’ DOWN! A last gasp from the brief, glorious Jenny-from-the-Block era.

4. LSG feat. LL Cool J, Busta Rhymes, and MC Lyte, “Curious” (1997)
An extremely good bubblegum rap-R&B crossover jam.

5. Carl Thomas feat. LL Cool J, “She Is” (2004)
Carl Thomas deserved better.

The Top 5 LL Cool J Music Videos:

1. “Hey Lover” / “Doin’ It” / “Loungin’” (1996)
Between the set pieces, outfits, mood lighting, and slow motion pans galore, the triad of Hype Williams videos from Mr. Smith look like if Tim Burton’s Batman were filmed in Queens.

2. “Jingling Baby” (1989)
Darien, Connecticut stand up!

3. “Going Back to Cali” (1988).
The black-and-white turns this one into a rich L.A. noir.

4. “4,3,2,1” (1997)
I have no idea what the story is with the Halloween costumes, but I’m here for it.

5. “Deepest Bluest” (1998)
If you thought “Pink Cookies in a Plastic Bag Getting Crushed by Buildings” was a cocaine fever dream …

The Top 5 Worst LL Cool J Couplets, Presented Without Commentary:

1. “Remember R. Kelly had the house on the hill? / Well when the party’s over, we can go there and chill” (“Imagine That,” 2000)

2. “Nah, I’m like your uncle, baby / The style of your beautiful face drives me crazy” (“Pink Cookies in a Plastic Bag Getting Crushed by Buildings,” 1993)

3. “I’m incredible, I mix up shit like cake mix / Keep it blazin’ hot, rhymes burn to keep you frostbit” (“Incredible,” 1998)

4. “You’re the type of guy to try to call me a punk / Not knowin’ that your main girl’s bitin’ my chunk” (“I’m That Type of Guy,” 1989)

5. “This don trumps, kill straight cats and all chumps / ‘Cause life is like a box of chocolate, Mr. Gump” (“Incredible,” again)

The Top 5 LL Cool J Movies:

1. Deep Blue Sea (1998)
The movie that asked: What if sharks … but smart?!?!

2. In Too Deep (1999)
An Akron undercover drama co-starring Omar Epps, Stanley Tucci, and Nia Long, in which LL plays a kingpin named God. Enough said.

3. Halloween H20: 20 Years Later (1998)
The campiest of the Halloween flicks, ultimately written out of the franchise’s continuity. It might rank higher on the list if not for the fact that Busta Rhymes fared much better against Michael Myers in the follow-up, 2002’s Halloween: Resurrection.

4. Any Given Sunday (1999)
The Very Serious Gridiron Football Drama directed by Oliver Stone, in which Al Pacino delivers the rousing speech about trying to score more points than the other team. The on-screen feud between LL and Jamie Foxx bled into real life, because of course it did.

5. Last Holiday (2006)
Spoiler alert, Queen Latifah doesn’t die.

The Top 5 LL Cool J Commercials & PSAs:

1. The Gap commercial that was actually a subliminal FUBU commercial (1999)
2. Old Spice Swagger (2008)
4. Major League Baseball “What a Game” (1996)
5. The weird Virgin Mobile one where LL’s buddy thinks he’s sniffing his late grandmother’s panties (2003)

The Top 5 LL Cool J Parodies:

1. Aries Spears, “Luv Me Better
2. G-Unit, “After My Chedda
3. In Living Color, “Mama’s Gonna Kick Me Out
4. Necro, “I Need Drugs
5. Master P, “I Need Dubs

A Brief Aside on “Accidental Racist”:

Yeah, I’ve got nothing.

An Honest Evaluation of LL Cool J’s Entire Career