Artist: LL Cool J
Label: Def Jam
While writing original rhymes and creating new, interesting beats are certainly the most important elements of a successful hip hop song, there is one aspect that is even more difficult to attain within the genre: longevity. There is perhaps no other genre with more "flash in the pan" artists then hip hop, and performers whose careers last even a decade are very few and far between. Standing in strong opposition to this trend, and remaining one of the most highly respected and influential artists to ever pick up a microphone is the man who continues to reinvent himself, and easily one of the longest running "ladies men" in history, Mr. Smith himself, LL Cool J. From his humble beginnings as a teenager in New York City, to his worldwide success in music, film, and television, there are few artists of any genre who have been as fortunate as LL Cool J, and he stands today as a true innovator of style within hip hop, with his contributions perfecting a movement that remains to this day. With his flawless lyrical delivery, and his somehow endearing, yet overly cocky content, LL Cool J is truly a one-of-a-kind talent, and his songs easily stand the test of time and are as enjoyable today as they were when they were first released. Though he would find greater commercial success with his later records, there is no question that it is LL Cool J's phenomenal 1985 debut record, Radio, that stands as not only his greatest work as an artist, by easily one of the most pivotal records in the history of recorded music.
Though many may not realize it, along with Run-D.M.C. and Beastie Boys, LL Cool J was the third of the key artists that helped Def Jam Records get off the ground. After sending Rick Rubin his homemade demo when he was only sixteen, LL Cool J dropped out of high school after he was signed to the up and coming label. After releasing the single, "I Need A Beat," Def Jam secured a distribution deal with Columbia Records, and LL Cool J was rewarded with the opportunity to record and entire album. Much of the success of Radio lies within the work of Def Jam founder and now-super producer, Rick Rubin. Credited on the back cover of the album as "Reduced By Rick Rubin," it is a fitting statement, as the minimalist production found throughout the album was a major break from the trends of the time. In many ways, the production and sound on Radio perfectly reflects Rubin's punk rock upbringing, as the minimalist beats and rough, edgy sound is very much the same approach as that of the greatest punk bands in history. This is another aspect that set LL Cool J aside from his peers, as using few samples and sparse beats, it put the primary focus on the lyrics and delivery, which still stand as some of the greatest ever.
The combination of the production of Rubin and the DJ work of Cut Creator create a truly classic hip hop sound. Relying on deep bass downbeats and simple record scratching, Radio proves that one need not get overly elaborate to create a musical masterpiece. While there are traditional samples from James Brown and Incredible Bongo Band's "Apache," DJ Cut Creator also shows off his creativity and diverse knowledge of music. Mixing in samples from AC/DC and Yes among others, as well as a brilliant use of go-go funk masters Trouble Funk, Radio shows that often times, less is more, as the lack of samples help to highlight the true skills of the artists on the album. It is also the sparse nature of the music that gives Radio, a hard-hitting, and authentic "street" feel, as well as helping to foster the more aggressive and powerful mood of LL Cool J's delivery. Even on the more "ballad-based" songs, the hard, punching beats keep the energy high, and it truly pushes the limits on what one can consider a "ballad." However, even though the backing beats and music are minimalist in nature, they also manage to match the energy and force of the vocals, and this juxtaposition is part of the true genius behind both Rick Rubin's production, as well as Radio as a whole.
Unlike the other early Def Jam artists, LL Cool J was unique for a number of reasons, most importantly, his swagger and the fact that he was a solo artist. Even if the beats and music were far more prominent than they are on Radio, there is no question that the amazing emcee skills and style of LL Cool J would still have been the focus of the record. Possessing one of the most clear, cal, yet powerful deliveries in hip hop history, even after more than twenty years, LL Cool J's rhyming remains largely unrivaled. Crafting brilliant rhymes and some of the greatest visuals ever, there are few artists who rap with as much force and energy, whilst not becoming cliché. Also pushing into more risqué, more sensual rhymes at times, Radio, features a small peek into the true "ladies man" image that LL Cool J would perfect throughout the 1990's. It is on Radio that LL Cool J takes the art of "b-boying" to an entirely new level, and his brilliant, bragging rhymes took the idea of self-promotion set the stage for the self-indulgence that still dominates the genre to this day. Whether he is extolling the virtues of his prized boom box ("I Can't Live Without My Radio") or how amazing and romantic a lover he is ("I Can Give You More"), there had simply never been another emcee with the bravado of LL Cool J. Yet, even with this extraordinary swagger, if he was not delivering quality lyrics, he would never have found success. Without any other group members, the lyrical content well completely on LL Cool J, and his ability to write amazing rhymes remains largely unrivaled to this day.
From television and film star to hip hop pioneer to international sex symbol, LL Cool J is truly a one-of-a-kind artist, and is easily one of the most influential performers in history. With an inner drive that is like no other, as a teenager, LL Cool J fought his way to the top of the hip hop scene, and in the process, became one of the most well respected and most talented artists in the history of the genre. Bringing as much aggressive energy as anyone else, with clear, original rhymes, LL Cool J exploded onto the music scene and never looked back. From his signature Kangol hat to his gold chains and impeccable physique, LL Cool J was truly the "total package," and all of this contributed to him completely re-writing the books on hip hop style and substance. Presenting the energy and grit of "the street," with some of the most outrageous, yet endearing self-proclaiming rhymes in history, LL Cool J bragged about his talents, and delivered on every single claim. Yet one of the most amazing aspects is that, within these overly boisterous rhymes, he rarely finds the need to swear, an art that has truly become lost within the current generation of rappers. Still making records more than twenty years after he first burst onto the scene, LL Cool J transcends the term "icon," and stands as one of the most important and revered performers in music history. Similarly standing as one of the most iconic and truly landmark moments in music history, LL Cool J's 1985 debut album, Radio, represents everything that makes hip hop music great, and is still as fresh, powerful, and enjoyable today as it was more than two decades ago.
Standout tracks: "I Can't Live Without My Radio," "Rock The Bells," and "I Need A Beat."