ARE YOU EXCITED FOR THE GRAMMYS? Probably not, but this year, it might not be so bad. In the run-up to Sunday’s ceremony, we’ll have daily posts about Grammys past and present, including Tuesday’s, about why the much overlooked Best Alternative Music Album is the most Internet friendly (and best) category out there, Wednesday’s 54 Best Album fun facts, and today’s, on Grammy host LL Cool J.
The second James Todd Smith crossed the “t” on his NCIS contract, he signed away the right to be referred to as LL Cool J. Not literally, sadly, but for many, the man who brought us Mama Said Knock You Out starring on a CBS procedural was the final nail on his proverbial credibility coffin. Hosting the Grammys doesn’t help things, either.
But we here at UPROXX chose to think positively, so let’s take a look at why it’s funny/sad that LL Cool J’s on NCIS: Los Angeles: because the man released two amazing albums, and dozens of great songs. In honor of his host gig, here are eight of his finest tracks, beginning with his nearly-perfect debut.
Song: “I Can’t Live Without My Radio”
There are two, and only two, correct choices for the best LL Cool J album: 1990’s Mama Said Knock You Out, which we’ll get to later, and 1985’s Radio, Cool J’s sparse, stunning debut. He recorded the album, with production from Def Jam founder Rick Rubin, when he was but a mere 17 years old, and he’s at his B-boy best on “I Can’t Live Without You.” I’ve always wondered something: how do musicians feel about their first song on their first album being considered their greatest achievement? It’s an actual “all downhill from here” realization.
Guess that’s why we’re still waiting for another Avalanches record.
Song: “Rock the Bells”
So good, they named a music festival after it.
Song: “That’s a Lie”
And one more from Radio, featuring the immortal line, “You lied, and a body builder kicked your butt/If you was in Egypt you’d lie to King Tut.” Take that, Steve Martin. It’s worth mentioning here (and over and over again) that Cool J’s discography is truly bizarre: there are the two aforementioned masterpieces, including Radio, but the two albums between them are disappointing, and after Mama, his work is mixed at best, dreadful at worst. Cool J too often tried to adapt to whatever was popular at the time, so taken as a whole, his career doesn’t coalesce the way it could have.
Song: “I’m Bad”
Album: Bigger and Deffer
Bigger and Deffer was not loved by critics or hardcore music fans when it was released in 1987, and it’s only in recent years that people have come around to (kind of) appreciating it, though not fully. That’s because the album feels bloated, like Cool J’s trying to prove that no, really, he is a badass, you guys, which for the most part, comes across as cloying and laughable (to say nothing of his love for ballads, a fascination that would later destroy his reputation for many). And yet, “I’m Bad” is one of Bigger‘s best scratch songs. You make no sense, Cool J.
Song: “Jack the Ripper”
Album: The B-side to “Going Back to Cali”
One of hip-hop’s finest diss tracks. You can read about the whole feud here, but basically, Kool Moe Dee believed Cool J stole his style, and was understandably pissed. Cool J fired back by recording “Jack the Ripper,” with lines like, “Prince of the growl is on the prowl/How You Like Me Now punk? You living foul/Here’s what my game is, kill is what my aim is/A washed up rapper needs a washer, my name is…Jack the Ripper.” The two never made up, but considering Cool J was in Halloween H20: 20 Years Later, I think Kool Moe Dee won.
Song: “Mama Said Knock You Out”
Album: Mama Said Knock You Out
Song: “The Boomin’ System”
Album: Mama Said Knock You Out
There’s nothing hard-edged about LL Cool J, it’s largely a self-aggrandizing myth, but he could sound convincing when he wanted to, especially on Mama Said Knock You Out. This is probably because no one loves LL Cool J as much as LL Cool J loves LL Cool J, so even though there’s no inflated menace to “The Boomin’ System,” it’s a smooth, effective nod to his earlier boombox work on Radio.
Song: “How I’m Comin'”
Album: 14 Shots to the Dome
14 Shots to the Dome was LL Cool J’s fifth album. He’s released seven more since it came out, in 1993, and yet none are must-owns. There are bright spots, sure, especially when DMX is involved, but, for instance, Todd Smith sounds like it came from a man torn between two worlds, which Cool J was and still is. He’s dragged his way through half of his musical career, because he’s a TV and movie star, too. (Mindhunters ain’t gonna hunt themselves.) 14 Shots was the last time he sounded focused on a singular idea — to make good music — and even if the results were mixed, there’s some decent stuff on it, like “A Little Somethin,” which isn’t on YouTube, and “How I’m Comin’.”