A pioneer, a legend, a lyricist, and now a member of The Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame, LL Cool J is genuinely one-of-a-kind. Born and raised in New York’s legendary borough of Queens, LL Cool J’s career is full of exceptional feats, incredible accomplishments and success across entertainment and business.
However, even though nowadays he’s known as a businessman and actor, LL Cool J’s heart is in hip-hop as an emcee and artist. Since the 1980s, the rapper (real name James Smith) has contributed so much to rap culture that it’s impossible to deny his talent. His discography spans decades, featuring various sounds and aesthetics, but Smith has always been a mainstay of the genre.
From his debut as a teenage b-boy on New York radio to his astounding career as a chart-topping rapper over three decades later, he has done more than enough to cement his status as a cultural icon.
Having already been inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame alongside musical gods such as Jimi Hendrix and Michael Jackson, it is (now more than ever) necessary to revisit and review the career of one of rap’s most significant artists. In celebration of his 30-year career, we have picked the five best LL Cool J songs of all time.
The five best LL Cool J songs of all time:
5. ‘Mama Said Knock You Out’, Mama Said Knock You Out (1990)
With its epic opening line, “Don’t call it a comeback…” ‘Mama Said Knock You Out’ became embedded in popular culture upon release in 1990. Produced by the Marley Marl’s as the fourth single for the 1990 album of the same name, Smith ensured listeners in this track that even as they entered a new decade, he would continue to dominate hip-hop.
Released in 1991, music critics saw LL Cool J as an ’80s rapper who was past his prime and fading, but little did they know that the track would win a Grammy Award for ‘Best Rap Solo Performance’ and set him up for success throughout the ’90s.
4. ‘Luv U Better’, 10 (2002)
Produced by the legendary producer duo The Neptunes, this song marks the first of many LL Cool J hits that surfaced after the turn of the millennium. With new sounds and new styles coming to the forefront, Smith was consistently reinventing himself and his image to make sure he could still make music that would be received well by the masses and did so quite successfully with songs such as ‘Luv U Better’.
Featuring vocals from the R’n’B singer Marc Dorsey, ‘Luv U Better’ was another LL Cool J love song and was a huge hit in the US, debuting at number four. The track was even nominated for a Grammy at the 2004 awards in the category of ‘Best Rap Performance’.
3. ‘Around The Way Girl’, Mama Said Knock You Out (1990)
An exceptional example of hip-hop perfection, this 1990 cut is one of LL Cool J’s quintessential “love” tracks. An ode to the girl next door, up the block and around the way, it’s truly timeless and is just as relatable now as it was when it was first released.
Released in 1990 on Russell Simmon’s legendary Def Jam Recordings, ‘Around the Way Girl’ was the third single for Smith’s 1990 album Mama Said Knock You Out. The track was the rapper’s first top-ten single, peaking at number nine. The single is considered a prime example of golden age hip-hop.
2. ‘I’m Bad’, Bigger and Deffer (1987)
It’s bold, it’s aggressive, and it’s as hip-hop as a track can get. This epic single from 1987 may not have been the rapper’s most successful commercially. However, it truly showcases the rapper’s lyrical skill, stamina, and ability as a performer.
Released as the lead single of LL Cool J’s second studio album Bigger And Deffer, the track was produced by Russell Simmons alongside The LA Posse production group. The beat samples ‘Theme from S.W.A.T.’ by Rhythm Heritage. The single peaked near 100 at number 82.
1. ‘Rock The Bells’, Radio (1985)
Untouchable and undeniable. Released as the third single from the rapper’s debut album Radio, released in 1985, ‘Rock The Bells’ was produced by the hip-hop legend Rick Rubin who went on to work with the likes of Jay-Z, Kanye West and others. The track is said to have been inspired by the 1982 song ‘Breaking Bells’ by Crash Crew. However, this is unverified.
Like a lot of amazing songs, the track was not appreciated as much at the time as it is now and has since become a culturally significant song representative of the 1980s hip-hop sound. The song is so culturally significant an online music publication named itself Rock The Bells in honour of the song and to keep its legacy alive.