Tidal Catalog #31: LL Cool J

Introduction: For those of you that have stumbled across this website and are interested in reading about my trek through the universe of the Tidal streaming service, let me tell you a bit about what I did. Back in 2016 I thought it would be kind of cool to listen to an artist’s catalog from start to finish and rank them from best to worst. After all, who doesn’t like a good list? I thought I might do a few of them and see what happened, hoping it would introduce me to records that were foreign to me in the arsenal of an artist I was familiar with. I also thought that it would be pretty cool to get out of the “one off” mode of listening to a new record, years after the previous one, in order to get a true sense of how the artist matured over time. Fast forward to June of 2019 and 250 catalogs later, I ended the trek. I posted these all on Facebook over the years as they were completed but I’m going to move them all over here, starting with #1, in order to expand them out a bit more. Facebook doesn’t exactly allow for too many details.

As with all my catalogs, to be considered in the ranking, an album has to meet certain criteria:

  • The artist must actually perform on 80% of the tracks (soundtrack and rap provision)
  • No compilations of previous released material will be included.
  • However, compilations of previously recorded material will be included if they are remixes, bonus tracks, outtakes… mostly music that hasn’t been part of a main release before.
  • The album must have been released officially and within the realm of the label that the artist would have been on at the time or official releases posthumously (normally applies to a slew of live records)
  • Any EPs must contain new new music and be relevant to the catalog, not be more like a single with a b-side or two.
  • Entrance Point: LL Cool J was hard as hell and was one of my favorite rappers growing up. I was very familiar with everything through 1993’s 14 Shots to the Dome and then my tastes shifted and I lost track of him for a while. And I say “was” hard as hell because by the time the mid-90s rolled around, he had lost most of his edge, which I think is why I moved on at the time.

All albums ranked on a 10 point scale:

  • Radio (10)

It’s hard to deny that Radio is one of the best rap albums of all time. This was the debut full length from James Todd Smith and the first full length album out on Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons’ Def Jam label and it’s a pioneering record. The raw, street level beats punctuated with scratching from DJ Cut Creator made this album sound like nothing else at the time and certainly paved the way for an even bigger record you might have heard of, called Licensed To Ill from the Beastie Boys. If you only know LL from recent acting gigs, it would seem odd to call him one of the greatest rappers ever but to that, I would ask you to go back and listen to this album. LL was a such a great writer of rhymes, very descriptive in his story telling and focused in his subjects. And right from the start you get two the staples of LL lyrics; A) You lame and LL’s the G.O.A.T. (“You Can’t Dance” and “That’s A Lie” and B) Your man ain’t good enough for you, but LL will make sure to treat you right and make no mistake, at the end of the night, we will be bangin’ (“I Can Give You More” and “I Want You”). LL was the true pioneer of the hip-hop love song. Mid-tempo beats down to straight ballads where he wants the girl to know how special she but at the same time, make no mistake, she’ll be gettin’ it on all night. This type of song would kind of prove to be his downfall in the end but right here at the start, it’s brilliant. And let’s not forget that he led with the great opener, “I Can’t Live Without My Radio” and then released the brilliant “Rock the Bells” which on the album version contained no bells at all. If you want to hear them, you have to get the B-Side to the single which is the 7+ minute original cut and has bells everywhere. In all my catalogs, this surely was one of the easiest calls to make for the top spot.

  • Mama Said Knock You Out (9.5)

Although there’s no real way for me to verify this, I believe that I’ve listened to Mama Said Knock You Out more than any other rap album ever. And that’s mostly due to my HS buddy, Ed. I would pretty much go over to Ed’s house every day and when it wasn’t covered in snow, we’d be in his driveway shooting hoops. Then one day LL released this beast and it was game on. Our goal for as many days as I can remember was to rap all the lyrics to the title track perfectly. Now I don’t have much of a memory, so I don’t know if we did this all the time or not – or if we even ever got it right – or frankly if I’m making all of this shit up but I’m gonna have to have Ed confirm since I say it literally every time this album or song is brought up. To this day, the album is still a monster though, so good that the title track was only the 4th single, which is kind of insane since it’s stood the test of time. “The Boomin’ System” “Around the Way Girl” and the remix of “Jingling Baby” are tunes that I could go back to any day of the week and enjoy. And while he had been known to toss a random food reference in a song now and then, you have “Milky Cereal” which has a new cereal reference pretty much every line. With some people this would be cheesy. But it’s right in LL’s wheelhouse. The only reason Mama Says Knock You Out doesn’t get a full 10 from me is that there’s a section up front with “Murdergram” and “Cheesy Rat Blues” where LL seems to try too much to be hard and it doesn’t work as well as it should. But this is one of those records that gets higher ranks from me for the nostalgia factor as well, which is something I didn’t do a lot in these catalogs.

  • Bigger and Deffer (9)

The only other complete classic in the catalog, Bigger and Deffer (BAD) is another one that has stood the test of time. BAD only had two hit singles but it was those singles that made him a bonafied superstar. LL leads the album off with “I’m Bad” which has a sound that had really never been heard before and a stunningly tight flow. But the song that put LL over the top was “I Need Love” – the very first commercially successful rap love song. Here’s this big dude with huge muscles, showing vulnerability in a rap song. As I mentioned in the blurb for Radio, in the long run he went to the sensitive love song one too many times and that hurt him but at this point, we all ate this up, especially women. I don’t know if this is where the lip-licking started but it’s unfortunately impossible to get a sweaty, muscular, lip-licking LL Cool J out of my mind forever. It was just so much a part of his personality that it was everywhere back in the day. And make no mistake, it’s not a novelty – but a great fucking song and still is to this day. But the reason the album only had two hits was almost certainly because there was no track that could follow “I Need Love” as a single. They tried their DJ song, “Go Cut Creator Go” which is great on its own but not really a single. BAD does contain one of my favorite LL non singles on it, “The Breakthrough” which is one of his best rhymes of all time. Part of what helped LL back in this early period too, was the fact that he switched up producers. This record was produced by the L.A. Posse instead of Rick Rubin, which ensured that he would still be BAD but not completely recreate the first album. Give the credit to LL for writing fantastic rhymes but changing producers from album to album throughout his career means that from one album to the next the sound at least didn’t get stale.

  • Authentic (7.5)
  • Exit 13 (7.5)
  • The DEFinition (6.5)
  • G.O.A.T. (6)
  • Walking with a Panther (6)
  • 10 (6)
  • Phenomenon (6)

So LL calls himself the G.O.A.T. and he has enough hits to not completely dismiss that notion, though in reality, he had three classic and pioneering records in his first four and some major hits off the other one of the four (Walking with a Panther). After Mama Said Knock You Out, it started going downhill for LL. Every album he has put out has some great tunes on it but they also have plenty of tracks that are throwaways, which makes everything from 1993 to say 2008 a bit maddening for a fan and kind of kills the notion that he’s the greatest of all time. I stopped here in the trek to write this album up though because the title track is my favorite LL Cool J song of all time. Maybe a bit odd but there’s something about “Phenomenon” that always gets me as hype as I can be. But with this record, he fell into the same trap that 9 million other rappers did – way too many guests. LL made great records with no one but his lone self rapping and this record is filled with other major artists that take the spotlight away from him too often. “Candy” is the type of song that I feel like LL simply had to make at this point in his career. Not a ballad but a mid-tempo love song and now with singing on it, courtesy of Ricky Bell and Ralph Tresvant. It’s not necessarily a bad song but one that feels forced rather than just carefree like his early material. Although overall I like Trackmasters as producers, its their songs that are the weakest on the album. The aforementioned “Candy” “Nobody Can Freak You” w/ Keith Sweat and “Father” which samples George Michael’s “Father Figure.” That’s not to say everything is bad outside of the title track. I always welcome the legendary Busta Rhymes on any track and he makes “Starsky & Hutch” into a great one. It’s just not consistent enough nor has enough LL on it to get a higher rating.

  • Todd Smith (5.5)
  • Mr. Smith (5)
  • 14 Shots to the Dome (4)

Thinking back, it seems impossible that LL could have followed up Mama Said Knock You Out with an album this bad, but it happened. This is the first album from him that didn’t sound like he was setting the trends, rather than following. Right from the first track, “How I’m Comin'” LL is rapping angry rather than smooth or street. And the second track, “Buckin’ Em Down” sounds very much like a Cypress Hill song. There’s a strong element of an attempt at West Coast Gangsta Rap here – and I say “attempt” because this just wasn’t LL’s strength. You may remember this album for the hit “Back Seat (of My Jeep)” and there are other songs like “Stand Behind Your Man” that find him doing what you would have expected. But those moments are few and far between and mixed with songs that completely clashed with each other. And of course, there’s one of the worst song titles of all time on 14 Shots – the single “Pink Cookies in a Plastic Bag Getting Crushed by Buildings” which is some reference to sex that I still don’t quite get and have never heard any human being say outside of this context. I can’t say that he never recovered from this record as the next album (Mr. Smith) contained both “Hey Lover” and “Doin’ It” which will be played until the end of time but this one certainly took him off the untouchable perch he had been on previously.

  • Summary: 13 albums, Average 6.8

Bonus content: I live right down the street from the Bollman Hat factory, which probably means nothing to you. But a few months ago, I learned that they create hats under the Kangol brand, which of course is the brand that LL wore all the time back in the day. So I went to the factory outlet store and in there was a vintage black Kangol cap. And well, how could I resist. Word to the mutha.

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