Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Don't Call This a Comeback: The Case of LL Cool J

I Can't Live Without My Radio LL Cool J had a burst of hits in his very early career. “I Can’t Live Without My Radio,” released in 1985 when he was just 17, didn’t make the pop charts, but it went to the Top Twenty on the R&B charts, and became a signature song for Cool J. It was followed by “I Need Love,” “Going Back to Cali,” “Around the Way Girl” and “Mama Said Knock You Out,” all of which made the Top Forty and all of which are very familiar to me.

Ironically, although “Mama Said” urged “Don’t all this a comeback,” it actually marked the end of the first phase of Cool J’s career. He was gone from the pop charts for a few years (the album 14 Shots to the Dome, his gangsta rap effort, was a bit of a flop) before landing again with four more Top Ten hits in 1995 and 1996. Then he went off to be a movie star before returning to the pop charts with four more hit singles between 2002 and 2006.

Maybe it’s just the trajectory of my own life, which got me out of the hip-hop game in the mid-1990s, but I get the feeling that LL Cool J will ultimately be remembered for that first run of singles. They were clearly hip-hop but also well-crafted pop songs, to the point that “I Need Love” was covered by Irish singer Luka Bloom. LL Cool J wrote and produced all those singles, too. And he did all this by the time he was 23. 

Don't Tell Me, I Don't Think So At first blush, I assumed that LL Cool J was a lightweight pop rapper, but the more I look at him, the more impressed I get. The only other rap act to have legitimate, multiple pop hits that early on was Run-D.M.C., who were inducted in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame back in 2009. Gangsta rap kind of overcame LL's brand in the early 1990s, but that shouldn't overshadow what a trailblazer he was. Neither should his latter career in soft-headed sitcoms and NCIS spinoffs. And the fact that he was able to come back with more hits after N.W.A, and then even more hits after the advent of Eminem, is to his strong credit.

Having said that, I can't quite bring myself to vote for LL Cool J. His stuff wasn't that strong, and there are other acts I'd rather support at this time. But I wouldn't mind it if he made it in.

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