If the contentious rap music world held a convention the way political parties do, LL Cool Jwould stand near the center, taking planks from the platforms of more radical elements, but making sure not to stray too far toward the fringes.
The hard left, personified by Public Enemy with its politics of anger, probably could recognize some of its ideas in the bleak social analysis that crops up on “14 Shots to the Dome,” the latest album by Cool J, a tall, muscular hip-hop veteran who was born James Todd Smith.
The mainstream liberals, led by Arrested Development with its expressions of faith and gentler pleading for progress, might endorse the spiritual streak that enters LL’s “Power of God” rap from 1990.
The armed camp, filled with vengeful gangsta rappers, would take satisfaction in having influenced the gun imagery that surfaces frequently on “14 Shots to the Dome,” starting with its title.
The pacifists who avoid raps about gunplay (Digable Planets, PM Dawn, Arrested Development) might disdain Cool J’s use of such imagery. But they nonetheless could recognize that there is a big difference between using it literally to portray mayhem on the streets, as the gangsta rappers do, and using it figuratively, as LL does.
When LL crows " . . . Click, click, boom! Stopped dead in your tracks!/Stick the steel in your mouth, buck-buck-buck , lights out!” he isn’t contemplating actual murder but using violent hyperbole to brag about a fanciful victory over a rival rapper.
The libertines, personified by 2 Live Crew’s chief panderer, Luther Campbell, would identify Cool J as a fellow hedonist after hearing his bawdy accounts of sexual conquests.
But LL’s sex-raps depict women as eager partners to be satisfied rather than as disposable receptacles to be degraded, and his raunch is balanced by the fervent romanticism epitomized by “I Need Love,” a hit hip-hop ballad from 1987. The rapper whose nickname stands for “Ladies Love Cool James” can claim that the moniker is justified by a romantic sensibility as well as a buff build.
One suspects that LL’s position at rap’s ideological center is less the result of premeditated design than a matter of a young performer from a stable, middle-class background winging it and coming to rest in the middle of things, surrounded by his own contradictions.
However he came to be there, his career serves as evidence that, in rap as in politics, the center is the surest ground to occupy. This month marks the ninth anniversary of the release of his first single, “I Need a Beat.” At 25, he now has maintained a high profile and high sales for more years than Ronald Reagan sat in the White House--a remarkable run for a performer in a genre defined by rapid shifts in styles, tastes and preferred subject matter.
Of his five albums, four have gone platinum, each having sold more than 1 million copies in the United States. “14 Shots to the Dome” hasn’t duplicated that feat, but the tour that brings LL Cool J to the Celebrity Theatre in Anaheim on Saturday is aimed at pushing the album along toward the platinum mark. “14 Shots” entered the Billboard chart at No. 5 in April and though it went no higher, it has passed the gold sales mark of 500,000.
Smith revels in this success in “Funkadelic Relic” and “Ain’t No Stoppin’ This,” two raps from “14 Shots” that recount his exploits and celebrate his longevity. The latter offers a year-by-year career countdown and projects his dominance into “infinity.”
But during a recent phone interview, Smith spoke in level tones, without braggadocio, as he considered the stardom that arrived in his teens and hasn’t faded yet. On past album covers, he may have sported such trappings as elaborate gold jewelry, champagne and an entourage of comely young women (imagery notably absent in the bleaker “14 Shots” graphics), but Smith noted that he still lives in simple digs: the basement of the house where he grew up in Queens.
“I live with my grandmother, just being regular and chilling,” he said from a rehearsal hall in North Hollywood. He stopped at one point in the interview to quiet down his restless backing band, which includes live drums, bass and keyboards plus two DJs.
He said his personal life has been steady through his public passage from adolescence to adulthood, and he attributes the stability to “just having a strong family setting, a unified family. It really (helps with) just keeping it in proper perspective. I don’t live for fame. I love it, but I love God and I love life more. When you’re very grateful for the things you have, in the hard times you can lean back on that.”
Of course, the LL of the brag raps that make up a sizable chunk of his and most other rappers’ repertoire seems a good deal more insistent about fame. In those raps, he demands homage while shouting down purported detractors and competitors. In fact, Smith said, these enemies are all products of his imagination. While some rappers have spun rhymes out of actual feuds with rivals, LL Cool J says he is just “shadow boxing” when he growls about beating up, shutting up or gunning down the competition.
“At this point, there’s nobody who makes me feel like that,” said Cool J, who did carry on verbal tiffs with specific rivals earlier in his career. “It’s me trying to shout out to the world. What it is, is just a desire to make more and more of a name for yourself. It grows out of growing up in an urban environment where you’re not recognized. It becomes more and more competitive, to see who can say the coolest stuff. Basically, it’s verbal boxing.”
Rap boasting has its musical antecedents in such blues nuggets as “Seventh Son” and “I’m a Man” and in James Brown’s numerous effusions of the ego. But Cool J acknowledges that there is a limit to how much a performer can blow his own horn. After years of boasting in rhyme, “sometimes it feels like it’s not as exciting. That’s why I did ‘Crossroads’ (a vision of the apocalypse in which he employed an 18-piece orchestra, plus chorus) or weird songs like ‘Pink Cookies’ or ‘Back Seat’ (two erotic raps from his latest album). I do some of that (boastful material) but I like to do other things, too. It’s not a focal point of my albums any more. I’m ready to do other things.”
The teen-aged Cool J was fond of telling interviewers that he had no interest in being socially relevant: “Raps like that are cool, but kids don’t come to my show to hear about politics and how bad life is,” he told Rolling Stone in 1987. “They come to have fun. And that’s what I’m rapping about, fun issues.”
But two years later, there was a glimmer of social commentary in his “Fast Peg,” a rap about a drug-dealer’s moll who meets a violent end. The year after that, his “Momma Said Knock You Out” album included “Illegal Search” and “Power of God.” Where the gangsta school is always spoiling to shoot it out with harassing police, Cool J’s solution in “Illegal Search” was typically cool-headed: The song’s hero goes calmly to court, wearing his best suit, and wins his case against a police officer who tried to frame him.
Cool J is up to three social-content raps on “14 Shots.” All of them openly acknowledge “how bad life is,” or can be.
“I think as you mature, your outlook changes,” Smith said. “You form opinions, and I expressed some things I felt would be pertinent and that people would enjoy hearing if done correctly. I can’t keep coming with the same thing. Then it would really get boring. (My fans) would rather say, ‘L took a chance.’ ”
With “All We Got Left Is the Beat,” he takes a risky plunge into one of the touchiest of all contemporary social issues. The song surveys the economic disaster that has befallen major cities, honing in on the psychological damage that ensues when young black men can’t find work that pays a living wage.
You break a man’s pride when he can’t get a job.
He can’t support his family, he feels like a slob
And black women don’t understand,
‘Cause they don’t realize what it is to be a black man.
In the morning, a brother feels like a jerk,
Seein’ black women and white men go to work.
So our women feel the brothers ain’t real,
But they won’t give us no jobs--that’s the real deal.
Hold my hand while I get it all together,
And don’t desert me in times of bad weather.
Smith says he wasn’t trying to point an accusing finger at black women with that rap, or to suggest that they sacrifice their jobs in favor of out-of-work men.
“Not at all. But a lot of times, these major corporations kill two birds with one stone. They hire a black woman” to meet recently instituted diversity-in-the-workplace goals. “On Wall Street, who do you see on the way to work? White men, black women, and a few black men. That’s reality.”
The song’s message “is not that black women should stay back and not get jobs. I just think that it’s hard for young black men to get jobs. Everybody has his own opinion and I’m not claiming to have a solution. If you get the family structure in order, give people economic equality, everything else falls into line.”
With his use of gun-toting imagery in his new album’s brag-raps, Cool J appears to fall in line with a prevailing trend epitomized by Ice-T, Ice Cube, the Geto Boys and others whose work centers on the violent details of street life.
While denying that he has jumped aboard a trend, Smith acknowledged that gun imagery is almost expected “in this phase in rap,” and that he formed his raps with audience expectations in mind.
“I don’t follow trends, but I need to communicate to people who listen to trends. So I use analogies and imagery I think they will understand.”
Does gun imagery glamorize gun violence? “I think if you’re not careful it could,” Smith said. “When you do that, you also have to do songs like ‘Crossroads’ and ‘Power of God’ to balance it out.
“Sometimes I have ideas I know wouldn’t be good to put out. They can be too violent, have too much profanity in them. It’s not that I want to dilute or sell out, but I try to keep in mind who’s listening. A lot of kids don’t have the ability to sort out reality from fantasy.
“I just try to do it with class, man, that’s all,” he summed up. “If I’m going to use weapons imagery or something sexual or risque, I try to do it in a classy way. I don’t try to do it just raunchy. I want to be accepted as a musician, somebody who did cool songs. I’m not trying to make a statement about my background or how tough I am. I’m into the art form, not into this ‘I’m a rapper that grew up on the railroad tracks’ thing. That’s a whole different breed of rapper.”
Like many rap stars, Cool J has launched a side-career as an actor, most recently playing a comic role as a villain who sees the light in the Robin Williams fantasy “Toys.”
“I’m interested in more (acting roles), as long as they’re not stereotypical,” J said.
But he also said he’ll continue to put most of his effort into music. The LL Cool J you hear on record insists that he will head the hip-hop heap unto infinity. The offstage Smith is more circumspect.
“I’d like to keep taking shots at this until people don’t seem interested any more,” he said. “Then I’ll move on.”