While there's no questioning the cultural impact and unrelenting endurance of hip hop music, not many rap artists can stay that they've enjoyed a lengthy career. A career that spans three decades is practically unheard of, with very few exceptions. James Todd Smith -- better known as LL Cool J -- is one such anomaly, celebrating 30 years in the rap game this year (longer, if you count his pre-Radio release "I Need A Beat"). Just shy of his 18th birthday when his debut album dropped in 1985, LL had plenty of energy and ambition to bolster his burgeoning career. Releasing albums every 2-3 years over the next decade would prove an exercise in perseverance and self-discovery.
Like any artist, he experienced triumphs and missteps as he experimented with his sound and sought to remain relevant. After the explosive career-defining moment that was Mama Said Knock You Out, many were left wondering if he'd lost his way again with the release of 14 Shots to the Dome. Despite the less-than-enthusiastic reception, Uncle L's star continued to rise thanks to his developing acting career. By 1995, he snagged his first lead in a television series (In the House) as well as his first lead in a movie (Out of Sync). Yet music remained his first love. With renewed determination, LL decided to re-introduce himself with his sixth album, Mr. Smith.
Oddly enough, each of the album's four official singles featured other artists rather than LL solo. The formula proved to be a success straight out the gate with an irresistible collabo between LL and R&B heavyweights Boyz II Men called, "Hey Lover." Built upon a classic sample (Michael Jackson's sentimental ballad, "The Lady in My Life") and soulful harmonies from Nate, Shawn, Mike and Wanya, the track was a bona fide slow jam, hearkening back to his "I Need Love" persona and appealing to men and women alike.
Lest you think he went soft and forgot that he was a product of Farmers Blvd, Todd enlisted Keith Murray's help as hype man and took it to the streets with "I Shot Ya." Asserting his dominance and lyrical prowess, he called out wannabes, haters and everyone in between. But he wasn't done, adding a killer remix of the track to close the album. This version had just as much bite as the original with the added dynamic of Fat Joe, Prodigy and Foxy Brown. Not to mention the simultaneous diss of MC Hammer, Ice-T and his "lifelong" rival Kool Moe Dee. Along the same vein, "Life As," the titular "Mr. Smith" and "Get the Drop On 'Em" were fueled by LL's charming, witty and hard-hitting braggadocio.
Paying respect to rap pioneers and giving props to his contemporaries, he waxed poetic about rap music on "Hip Hop." His sense of humor was on display for "No Airplay," sandwiching a "clean" radio edit in between profanity-laced rants. "Hollis to Hollywood," "Make it Hot," and "God Bless" utilized clever word play, catchy hooks and cultural references as LL centered on his expanding career and overall greatness. But as he proved with the GRAMMY-winning "Hey Lover," they don't say "Ladies Love Cool James" for nothing.
His "Doin It" duet with LeShaun was another major success. Giving a modern spin on LeShaun's 1988 hit "Wild Thang," the two artists made us blush as they engaged in lyrical foreplay nestled inside a Grace Jones sample. LeShaun's voice dripped with naughtiness, bringing to mind the old "lady in the streets, but a freak in the sheets" maxim. Meanwhile, "Loungin'" paired the rapper with short-lived R&B duo Terry & Monica. Taking cues from the Al B. Sure! song that it sampled, LL kept things nice and sexy as he described the many ways he could please a lady. While the song's remix (featuring Total) would prove to be more popular (thanks to a movie soundtrack feature for Good Burger and a Hype Williams-directed video), the album version was still a crowd-pleaser.
Propelled by the success of the four official singles (three of which landed in the Top 10 of Billboard's Hot 100 in addition to "Hey Lover" and "Loungin'" climbing to No. 1 on the Hot Rap Singles chart), Mr. Smith was another major success for LL, going double platinum and winning awards and accolades from critics and fans. Since then, Mr. Smith (the man) has broadened his reach, delving deeper into acting, becoming an author, performing various TV hosting duties, introducing music recording technology and launching the Kings of the Mic Tour among other pursuits. While we're still awaiting his now overdue selection for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, at least Hollywood is showing some love, honoring him in 2016 with a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.