LL is a rock in a bling-crazed world

ON POPULAR MUSIC

July 27, 2006|By RASHOD D. OLLISON

Pictures don't quite capture the full scope of it.

Up close and personal, LL Cool J is handsome in a turn-all-the-way-around-for-another-look kind of way. No matter your preference, you have to give the guy his props: great skin, smile and body. Ah, if only I had it going on like that, I thought when I first saw him. But I never will. Besides, there can be only one LL.

I met him about four years ago at the MTV Video Music Awards at New York's Radio City Music Hall. I was in the pack of print journalists on the red carpet, vying for quick interviews with the stars as they strolled by for photo ops. One of his handlers escorted LL over to where I stood. After he chatted and flirted with the attractive female reporter next to me, the rapper-actor gave me a few usable quotes. I don't remember what I asked him, and I don't remember what he said. For the minute or so he stood there, I kept thinking about how fat and lame I must look standing in front of such a glowing, sculptured man.

LL, who headlines Rams Head Live on Sunday, is an anomaly in the world of hip-hop. For 20 years, the man born James Todd Smith has remained a mighty force in the ever-changing, youth-driven, bling-obsessed genre where careers often come and quickly melt away like snowflakes. Since the release of his classic 1985 debut Radio, LL has amassed nine consecutive platinum or multi-platinum albums and seven gold singles. Altogether, the 38-year-old performer has issued 12 CDs, the latest being Todd Smith, which in April made its debut at No. 6 on Billboard's pop album charts.

Like his last album, 2004's solid The DEFinition, the new one presents the seemingly happily married man and father of four as an around-the-way romantic. (For the past 18 years, LL has successfully worked the rapping lover formula.) But he's also, at times, tough and energetic, clever and relaxed on his most recent CDs. Unlike Jay-Z these days, LL doesn't come off as an aloof, hip-hop elder statesman. Whether he's rocking b-boy gear -- baggy jeans and baseball caps -- or crisply tailored suits and fedoras from his Todd Smith clothing line, LL's sex appeal is ageless.

"With a name that stands for the phrase Ladies Love Cool James, how could [he] go wrong?" says Emmett Price, assistant professor of music and African-American studies at Boston's Northeastern University. "As the quintessential b-boy, LL Cool J has a timeless style and image which will probably never grow old. We have never seen him with hair, so there is no worry of graying or balding. His body has remained clean, cut and well-chiseled for the past 20 years."

His sexiness aside, LL's music has also remained fresh and attractive -- for the most part. As to be expected in such a long career, the native New Yorker has released a few dogs: 1995's Mr. Smith, 1997's Phenomenon and 2000's G.O.A.T. But his 2004 hit single "Headsprung," produced by the masterful Timbaland, was one of that year's best bangers: rowdy and in-your-face with a hypnotic chorus. Nothing on Todd Smith matches that track's kinetic energy, though "What You Want" with Freeway is a blistering standout.

"He sometimes makes these songs like Starbursts," says Danyel Smith, author and editor-in-chief of Vibe magazine. "You pop them in, they explode with flavor, and then they're gone. But you know LL will come out with another album 18 months later. ... He has the credibility you can't make up through marketing. He's always been able to reincarnate himself."

Beyond music, LL has long established himself as a believable, charismatic actor, his presence sometimes being a movie's only saving grace. (The awful Kingdom Come from 2001 is a prime example.) Although most of his roles on TV and on the big screen have been lightly comedic, LL has proven he's adept at drama. The lover-man rapper shocked some fans when he played "God," an evil underworld boss in the 1999 cop flick In Too Deep. New York rapper Shyheim, whose next album In the Public Eye hits the streets in the spring, had a small role in the movie.

"LL got a light, man," he says. "It shines. Working on the film, I learned from him to stay humble and still come across [as] confident."

And that's something I've always liked about LL. On his records, he's forever bragging and boasting about his skills, sexual and otherwise. But that's the essence of hip-hop, an extension of the old street-corner art of smack talking, of which LL is a master. Is he the greatest rapper of all time? I don't think so. But he's definitely one of the most important. He's an evolved, respectable brotha taking care of business in the oft-times inane world of hip-hop. We need more like him.

Check out LL Cool J at Rams Head Live, 20 Market Place, at 9 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $50. For more information, visit ramsheadlive.com or call 410-244-1131.

rashod.ollison@baltsun.com

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