LL is well-adjusted — and it’s worth taking a moment to note the improbability of that happy sanity. He was only four years old when his psycho father opened up on both his mother and his grandfather with a 12-gauge shotgun (both wounded, neither killed). And his stepfather proceeded to beat him with everything from household tools to an electrical cord. So it’s a little miraculous to hear LL, on record and in interviews, so little troubled by psychic pain. He is happily married to Simone Smith, a woman he met in 1987 down the street from his house in Queens. He has four children. “You know, if somebody say take the garbage out, I take the garbage out,” he explains in a YouTube clip. “I don’t say, you know, I’m number 10 on the TRL, you take your own garbage out.” Surely, at least, there are all-night benders at New York hot spots? “Man, to keep it real with you, I like to go home and go to sleep.”
All this has its musical price, of course: repetition, poor imagination, boredom. The four albums that followed 1993’s 14 Shots to the Dome — Mr. Smith, Phenomenon, the never-endingly titled G.O.A.T. Featuring James T. Smith: The Greatest of All Time, and 10 — are by and large hip-hop leftovers, what remained once Missy Elliott and Eminem put out the good stuff. Released in 2004, The DEFinition was a minor renaissance for LL, and that thanks to its being almost entirely produced by Timbaland. But even then, stack up DEFinition’s lead single, “Headsprung,” against almost anything Timbaland had produced for Aaliyah in the preceding years. It can’t compete. On these albums, LL Cool J is maddeningly second-rate, the king of the middle.
And then, yes, there are the outright embarrassments, the love jams that are more romantic laundry lists than expressions of any real feeling. One also cringes at LL’s occasional attempts at real violence. On his best aggressive work, it’s clear that the stabbings, shootings, beatings, etc., are metaphorical, that it’s the ego and not the innards that he’s slicing up. That’s how an attack as brutal and single-minded as “Mama Said Knock You Out” can still be so much fun. But on “Queens,” off G.O.A.T., he goes for the real thing: “What’s your worst nightmare, black?/I’m beyond that.” Fair enough. One suspects, however, that LL would be hard pressed to spell out his nightmarish qualities. It’s adorable, in a way, that he should come up so short. He can’t help being a sweetheart.
LL’s best work is his early work, especially Radio. Like a lot of early hip-hop, Radio can sound simple to the point of childishness, in both its words and its rhythms. It’s not. Bring an open mind to “I Need a Beat” and you’ll hear its concussive strangeness with fresh ears. The song throws together an astro-funky synthesizer line and drums that don’t so much kick as detonate. The album’s back cover is famously stamped with the credit “Reduced by Rick Rubin” — which is accurate. LL’s snotty, adolescent, charismatic rhymes occupy the ample spaces in the mix.