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Music: Hip-Hop Grownup

4 minute read
Josh Tyrangiel

In an art form in which even an adolescent, Lil Bow Wow, 15, has to worry about overstaying his welcome (he recently dropped the Lil in hopes of fashioning a fresh image), LL Cool J, 34, is a bona fide curiosity: the world’s oldest living rapper. It has been nearly two decades since he debuted as a baby-faced teen in Krush Groove and a dozen years since he declared himself still relevant (“Don’t call it a comeback/I’ve been here for years!”) on Mama Said Knock You Out. But on Oct. 15, LL will reach an unprecedented hip-hop milestone when he releases his 10th album, 10. “I’m not gonna sit here and tell you that I understand why I’ve lasted,” says LL, ne James Todd Smith. “Believe me, if I had a magic formula, I’d be selling it for $50 million a pop.”

Hip-hop could use a magic formula at the moment. Even though Nelly and Eminem are on a trajectory to sell 10 million copies of their most recent albums, the genre is in a profound slump. Sales are down 24% from the same period last year, and the depression isn’t merely commercial. For the first time in recent memory, there’s genuine apathy among fans and a sense that the music isn’t what it used to be. LL Cool J–whose career has risen and fallen but seldom dipped below platinum–suddenly finds himself the genre’s wisest head. “There are a lot of limits that people place on rap and rappers nowadays,” says LL. “Some of those limits come from record companies, but a lot of them come from rappers themselves. They’re afraid to be individuals.”

The early ’90s rap scene, in which LL hit his commercial stride, was the world’s freakiest cocktail party. The liberal humanists of the Native Tongues mixed with the neo–black nationalists of Public Enemy and the ghetto-crime reporters of N.W.A. while LL Cool J flirted with the ladies and Bushwick Bill and M.C. Hammer kept things from getting too weighty. Some of these performers ran out of things to say; most were subsumed by the wave of gangsta culture that swept over rap in 1993. By the time Snoop Doggy Dogg’s Doggystyle became the first rap album to debut at No.1, record labels and would-be rap stars were fully aware of rap’s lucrative potential and piled on the gangsta parade. “Once one thing gets through the door and it works,” says LL, “people gravitate to the money.”

LL briefly toyed with going hard core himself, but it was a poor fit. He had always been a ladies’ man (his name is an abbreviation of Ladies Love Cool James) and, while the rest of the industry has chased trends–from gangsta (Snoop Dogg) to pimp (Jay-Z) to pot-smoking party regionalist (Nelly)–LL has remained a lover boy.

“Look,” he says, “I’m not comparing myself to Robert De Niro, but is he old and cool? Yeah! Because he’s himself, he does his thing to the best of his ability and he picks projects that give him an opportunity to show you his talent. You love him for him,” says LL. “I’m not a teenager, I’m not a gangster, and I have no reason to pretend to be. I’m 34. I’m a guy who loves his music and enjoys what he does. I love my family–I’m not ashamed to say I have a wife and four kids–and I just don’t allow any of the normal rap stereotypes to stop me from being who I am.”

LL has never been particularly deep, and 10 doesn’t find him contemplating much beyond his love life. But the player who once wrote such horndog classics as Big Ole Butt and Around the Way Girl has evolved into a husband who, on the album’s first single, Luv U Better, raps to his wife, “Let’s laugh together, cry together/God willing we’re gonna die together.” “Every artist has the right to make what they make and say what they say,” says LL, “but there’s got to be more room for positivity. That’s why I didn’t put any profanity on my new record. That’s not who I am right now.”

There are plenty of interesting voices in rap–Cee-Lo, Divine Styler and Blackalicious, to name a few–but their records don’t sell. LL remains the exception, but he still hopes that one day he can be the rule. “I know there’s this sense in rap that a lot has been done already,” says LL. “But there’s plenty more to do.”

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