Bold and vainglorious, 16-year-old James Todd Smith was a one-man Run-DMC when he exploded onto the scene as LL Cool J in 1985. He was a cartoon character with ironclad lyrical muscles, venomous enough in spirit to please the gangsters of his Queens, N.Y., hometown but with enough velvet in his voice to make the young ladies swoon.
The only problem was that Smith never wanted to be a tough guy; deep down, he wanted to sing love songs. LL Cool J, after all, stands for Ladies Love Cool James. His heart has always been in rap ballads like "I Want You" and "I Need Love." His producers, Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons, had to convince him to keep ripping it rough, because in the musical revolution known as hip-hop, to paraphrase Malcolm X, you're too busy swinging to be singing.
Mr. Smith proves that 10 years and six albums later, LL is able to bridge the gap effectively between the cream puff and the hard-ass. Mr. Smith doesn't always deliver the haymaker punches of "Mama Said Knock You Out," but it has enough force to prove that the king from Queens is no punk.
What on paper seems like schmaltz ends up being one of the most worthwhile tracks LL has ever committed to tape: "Hey Lover," a rap duet with Boyz II Men, has it all — the perfect combination of vocal harmonizing, a clever sample from Michael Jackson's "Lady in My Life," and LL's forthright and highly visual lyrics. "Doin It," his sexually charged duet with singer LeShaun, shows the raunchy side of LL's personality, which hasn't reared its head since "The Bristol Motel," from 1987's Bigger and Deffer. But like that song, there's almost no profanity involved; the sex is all embedded within the song's analogies.
But whether LL likes it or not, the secret of his success is his lyrical fire. "No Airplay" and "Get da Drop on 'Em" have the right idea: Forget about the radio demographics and keep it real. And he does, keeping the structures loose and the beats hard while firing off metaphors like stray bullets. Maybe one day LL will realize that it's his electrifying flow, not his Casanova aspirations, that have made him a rap superstar for 10 years running.