The average life span of a rap artist is only slightly longer than a fruit fly's, but James Todd Smith, a.k.a. LL Cool J, is not your average rapper. After bursting onto the scene as a cocky 16-year-old with "I Got a Beat," in 1984, this native of the Hollis neighborhood, in Queens, N.Y., has had a string of hits — as well as his share of misses. In 1989 he got booed at a rally for slain Brooklyn, N.Y., youth Yusuf Hawkins when his high-livin', champagne-and-gold-chain lifestyle proved out of sync with the politically charged times. But he picked himself off the mat in 1990 with the hard-hitting Mama Said Knock You Out. His last album, 1995's Fourteen Shots to the Dome, shot 14 blanks. After firing his management team (which included his father) and marrying the mother of his three children, LL is back on top again with a sitcom, In the House, now moving from NBC to UPN, and a recent album, Mr. Smith, a self-assured collection of slick and sexy soul. At 28, LL is one of the grand old men of rap, having watched most of his contemporaries fall by the wayside. You can go ahead and call it a comeback — again.
Why is Mr. Smith so much better than your last album?
The last album was a flop because I wasn't really into it. My management at the time pushed me to make it, and I wasn't ready. I think it reflected that. It had a lack of focus. It was like having a bad game, like having a bad day at the office. It just happened to be a whole album. One thing I've learned about the music industry is it comes in waves — there's ups and downs. Every album isn't going to be killer.
What's the lowest point in your career?
My last album was a low point, but it was the reason I totally restructured my personal life — from management to getting married — and it ended up being the best thing that ever happened to me. At the time I thought it was the worst thing that ever happened to me. I thought everything was going wrong.
Who calls you Mr. Smith?
Bill collectors. [Laughs] I named my album Mr. Smith because of all that I've been through. This is the first time I made an album that I was actually a grown man.
"Hey Lover" is about having a crush on someone who doesn't want you. Has that actually ever happened to you?
Yeah. I've asked girls for their number and they said no. I've asked them out on a date and they said no. I'm not infallible. I don't claim to be the coolest person in the world. I've been rejected, and I've had ups and downs like any other guy. I'm not the superlover ladies' man of the world.
So not all ladies love Cool J?
Sometimes. That's what I'm saying.
Is there anything you want that you haven't gotten?
I'd like to sell 5 million albums a clip. But to be honest, my life is really fulfilling. I have a lot to be thankful for. There were times in my life that I had to take my old bike that I rode all year and put it under my Christmas tree and pretend it was new.
Are there records you won't let your kids listen to?
I have records of my own I won't let them listen to. I'm an adult. I have a right to make the kind of music I want to make. At the same time, I have a responsibility to think about kids, too. I have to find a balance in terms of my responsibility to be a role model and my artistic freedom.
Ever had a mystical experience?
When I was a little boy, I floated out of my body. I was laying in the attic in my grandmother's house. I made myself go back in. I felt like if I left, I wasn't coming back.
What's the difference between Hollis and Hollywood?
It's like different sports, but the common goal is you want to score. You can't say someone in Hollywood is fake, because you can go down here to 34th Street and you got a guy trying to sell you a phony calling card, and he's fake, too. What's the difference between one guy breaking into your car trying to steal your radio and another guy trying to distribute your film in foreign territories you don't know about?
Your MTV Unplugged performance was pretty amazing. How come you never did anything like that again?
Sometimes when you have a great moment, you just have to let it be that. I don't know about trying to recapture it. It was just one of those things that happened, and it was real honest and real natural, and I didn't think it out. If I did it now, I might be thinking, and that might be a problem. Instead of coming off cool, it might come off like, "Oh, LL's trying to do that Unplugged thing again, and it's not as cool as before."
Why do you call someone a faggot on "Get da Drop on 'Em"?
I'm not homophobic at all. I can give you the English translation for a faggot: cigarette. It wasn't about homosexuality. It was more about courage. I don't have a problem with homosexuals. If that's what they want to do, that's what they do. I'm heterosexual. I love my wife, but I don't have a problem if someone wants to be gay. I use the word nigga, too. If I can say nigga on an album, and I'm an African-American, I can say faggot.
Isn't it different being black and using the word nigga and being straight and using the word faggot?
Not for me. Because that's not the kind of human being I am. That's just talking about roughness; that's not talking about sexual preference. I would never say anything that someone would misconstrue as judgmental or prejudiced. That's why I don't come down on women or make comments about gays being gay or make a comment saying something wrong about Jewish culture or white people or Asians. I think diversity is power.
Are you still going to be rapping when you're 40?
I don't know. Who would've thought that Mick Jagger would be doing what he's doing now?