LL Cool J - Don't Call It A Comeback
Thursday, 20 March 2008
LL Cool J, aka James Todd Smith, has achieved the longevity that eludes most MCs. Smith, born in Queens, New York, owes this to his fostering multiple facets to his career. LL has the streets down. He's a pop star. He's a Hollywood contender. A sex symbol. A trendsetter. And, crass it may be, he's business-minded.
In 2008 LL is aware that, being in the game for 20 years, it's imperative that he not succumb to an icon's complacency. "The biggest challenge is just to be continuously better than I am, just to get better and better and to just compete with myself and push myself and challenge myself to be even more creative and be a better business man and be a better artist and just bring more and more truth out of myself and just be better in general," he says, without taking a breath. "That's probably the biggest challenge - and the most rewarding part of living."
The teenage LL Cool J (standing for 'Ladies Love Cool James'), discovered by Rick Rubin, signed to Def Jam way back in 1984. He scored with the endearing I Need A Beat. LL consolidated the success of his brash debut, Radio, with Bigger And Deffer. He established his romantic image with the rnb I Need Love, the template for all rap ballads thereafter - and, in effect, Puff Daddy.
LL initially struggled to redefine himself with the looming gangsta rap, but 1990's Mama Said Knock You Out hit the mark. LL was at his peak in the mid-'90s with Mr Smith.
Later LL even had his own high-profile mega beef with the upstart Canibus, who, as he predicted, has since sunk into obscurity. The photogenic LL inevitably segued into acting, like Will Smith. He was cast in Toys alongside Robin Williams and played in the long-running sitcom In The House. The self-made star published his autobiography I Make My Own Rules in 1998, documenting, among other things, his childhood abuse. Still, when asked the biggest lesson he's learnt, LL is prosaic. "This may be a little corny and plain but, you know, buying a little real estate don't hurt nobody!" he laughs.
Recently LL has been openly disgruntled about the label that gave him his break. In 2006 LL's last guest-laden blockbuster, Todd Smith, slipped under the radar, the MC blaming Def Jam's poor promotion. LL was especially critical of Jay-Z, Def Jam's then President. And he was justified to be irked. Tellingly, the LL bio on Def Jam's Website is several albums old. Today LL is all diplomacy and looking ahead to his next LP. He'll shortly deliver Exit 13. As the title underscores, it's his finale for Def Jam. "I challenged myself musically and I put a lot more energy into it," he says of the album. "I worked on it for a year-and-a-half. I threw away two records to get to this record.
"It's the musicality, the concepts, the way the record is designed - it's just a really special record. I haven't done anything like this in years and years and years... It's really pushing the envelope. I'm incorporating all different types of musical styles. It's a lotta energy. It feels so new and fresh - it's like a breath of fresh air for the music industry and for hip hop in general. I think that it's gonna be really exciting for people when they hear it."
Reports circulated that 50 Cent would be heavily involved in Exit 13. "When I first started the project, 50 and I worked on a lotta records together. We worked on a whole album together. Then, after that, I worked on another album. And then, after that, I decided to work on an even newer record - and the newest record is the one that I'm actually coming out with. So 50 ultimately didn't end up executive producing the album, but we did work closely in the beginning and he did motivate me creatively. He just helped me get jump-started and get rolling in the studio."
LL isn't exactly overwhelmed by modern hip hop. "It's gotten bigger and bigger and bigger... I think that on some levels sometimes the business overrules the creativity, but there's still some great artists out there who are creative and do make creative records. "Overall, though, it's just expanding and, the more something expands, the less concentrated it can be a lotta times.
What I'm trying to do is bring back that level of concentration to the music."
For the present, LL is anticipating his inaugural Australian tour. Years ago he was meant to touch down on these shores to promote Deep Blue Sea, a flick in which, coincidentally, sharks - those great Aussie predators - have a pivotal role. He's ready. "I'm excited to be coming," LL says. "I can't wait. It's been a long time. We've been on and off thinking about it for years. I can't wait to come down."
And what of the shows- "I'm just gonna give them a sampling of most of my music that I've done over the years and give them an opportunity to see what I do live and really connect with the audience on a deep level and bring a lotta energy and fun and enjoyment. It's gonna be official and pure hip hop. And that's what we're gonna do.” It’s not a comeback, LL - it’s an arrival.
WHO: LL Cool J
WHAT: Plays the State Sport Centre at Sydney Olympic Park
WHEN: Saturday 22 March