Like Will Smith, LL Cool J has transcended the title “rapper.” The Queens native is also film and TV star, a spokesperson for the Fubu clothing line and an author.
But where Smith and other successful rappers have lost some of their musical edge after embracing acting, Cool J has remained respected in the hip-hop community.
And with his new album, “G.O.A.T.” (an acronym for “Greatest of All Time”), the versatile rapper, 32, demonstrates that he’s still one of the genre’s most exciting artists. Besides his own best-selling albums, he’s always in demand as a guest on other artists’ projects or for soundtrack contributions.
As on his other recordings since 1985, Cool J (born James Todd Smith) delivers both sensual raps and braggadocio songs. It’s a balance that helped him put together a series of gold and platinum albums in the ‘80s and ‘90s that did much to convince the skeptical record industry that hip-hop artists could have a sustained career.
In the new album, which is due in stores next Tuesday, the multiple-Grammy winner expands his musical focus to explore some social issues, including violence in society.
Besides “G.O.A.T.,” Cool J--the first artist to release an album on the hugely successful Def Jam Records label--remains active on the movie front. He’ll be appearing over the next year in three films, including a remake of “Rollerball.” In an interview, the veteran rapper talks about the growing social consciousness in his music as well the evolution of rap.
Question: You’re not really known for making political music, but you express concern with violence this time on “Homicide,” a track from the new album. There’s a reference to Columbine and mainstream America’s apparent apathy toward ghetto violence. What led to the track?
Answer: I thought it would be an opportunity for me to create some dialogue. I think what happened at Columbine was a terrible tragedy. But I also think that children are being lost all over our country and our world, and if we take notice, maybe something like that can be prevented from taking place in the future.
Everyone isn’t insensitive to what’s going on in the city. If this song can touch one person and inspire one person to pass one law that stops one gun from getting in the country and saves one life, then I’ve done what I was inspired to do. Sometimes we should use our power and influence to touch people.
Q: What were some of the things that first attracted you to rap?
A: Escapism. Being abused as a child. Loving the music. Me being the type of kid who liked to speak and express myself. I just heard it and thought it was hot. It was like a kid hearing a guitar lick and they just pick it up and never put it down. I was bit by the bug and that was it.
Q: When gangster rap emerged, were you concerned about your career? Many people suggested your 1989 album, “Walking With a Panther,” was more profane and violent in an attempt to fit in with the times.
A: I wasn’t even thinking about that. I was celebrating my success. I had my champagne, my girls, my cars and my jewelry. All I did on that album was enjoy things. I was living in the moment and not worrying about anything or anybody.
Q: You’ve had very public and heated rivalries with such rappers as Kool Moe Dee, Ice-T and Canibus throughout your career, but none of them have ever escalated to violence. Why have other rap rivalries been unable to remain confined to the music?
A: I really can’t answer that because unless you’re in a man’s shoes, you really can’t judge him. With me, what I say on a record stays on the record. We’ve got to let the music be the music. I don’t think the spirit of it should go beyond competitiveness.
Q: How have you been able to excel throughout your career despite all of the genre’s changes, from gangster rap to Puffy’s pop rap to today’s materialistic artists?
A: Loving what I do, not thinking I know everything, allowing other people to teach me new things every day, paying attention, being a fan, loving the music, living the life. I’m not a boy in a plastic bubble. I don’t mind going to a mall and signing those extra autographs just so I can be outside and live life. When you continue to live life, life lives in you.
Q: At what point did you think that rap had proven itself as a viable art form?
A: It had always proven itself to me. The only proof I needed was my feelings for it. When I heard it, I felt inspired, empowered and entertained. Art is subjective. If I walk in a room, see a painting and it mesmerizes you, I don’t need anyone else to say it’s a good painting for me to enjoy it.
Q: Who and what do you enjoy about hip-hop today?
A: I’m really enjoying Mobb Deep, Dr. Dre. I think that all these guys starting their own labels and them getting paid is good, especially in the music industry, where artists tend to get shafted. What Master P, Puffy and Cash Money accomplished was impressive. I like seeing that, and it makes me proud.
On another level, I wish that as a hip-hop community that we could respect ourselves a little bit more. This is no disrespect to the hip-hop community, but when every time we have an event or a big show, there’s a bunch of violence or a whole bunch of drama, that’s embarrassing. You can’t complain about the way you’re treated when the way you’re treated is based on your behavior and your behavior isn’t good.
Q: How much longer do you think you’ll be recording rap songs?
A: I have one more album left on my contract with Def Jam. Of course, I’d love to see this album be very successful. Doing movie and television has not stopped me from caring about my music. I’d like to do another album and after that, I don’t know.
Q: Many pop music stars have attempted to become actors but have failed. Yet you’ve appeared in more than 10 since 1985’s “Krush Groove.” Why have you succeeded where others have floundered?
A: I’m an artist before I’m a rapper, and I’m an artist before I’m an actor. Some people are just doing things. I like taking imaginary circumstance and creating real life.
I wanted to take [acting roles] seriously and not just be a celebrity stunt casting. I don’t want [people to think] they hired a rapper who can put butts in the seats. That is part of it, but that’s the same reason that they pay the actors. I want to be able to deliver in whatever I do.