Released November 18,1985
Def Jam Recordings
Just about two months shy of his 18th birthday, LL Cool J exploded on the hip-hop scene like an atomic bomb when he released his debut album on Def Jam Recordings. There was nothing like him before this. I remember an early interview with Run, of Run-DMC, where he said he felt like he was Richard Pryor getting replaced by Eddie Murphy when LL came along. LL was loud, brash, and cocky. He also had an undeniable sex appeal that attracted the ladies, and he actively played up to that (it’s right there in his name: Ladies Love Cool James), ripping his shirt off on stage when he performed. Revisiting this classic album almost 28 years later, it’s interesting to note how much rap music has changed. This album has 10 songs (which was standard for the time), and there are no guest-appearances from other rappers or singers on it. It’s all just LL. Plus the whole album has just one main producer, Rick Rubin, also who composed the beats for each song. The credits on the album actually say “reduced”, not “produced” by Rick Rubin, sort of as an in-joke. But it accurately describes Rubin’s style. Most of the songs are just LL rapping over a hard beat, complimented by scratches from LL’s DJ, Cut Creator. Not a lot of melodies or instrumentation, unlike most rap music of the day (& now).
The album opens with the hardcore B-Boy anthem, I CAN’T LIVE WITHOUT MY RADIO.. This is long before the days of iPods and iPhones, when a status symbol in the Hood was to have the BIGGEST radio possible to play your music. A month before this album dropped, LL appeared as himself performing this song in the hit movie KRUSH GROOVE, which just strengthened anticipation for this debut. He followed that up with live (well, lip-synched) performances on shows like American Bandstand and Soul Train.
LL would follow that up with ROCK THE BELLS, an uptempo track full of braggadocio lyrics with a bit of a playful side.The king of crowd rockers finally is back/My voice is your choice as the hottest wax/True as a wizard, just a blizzard,I ain’t taken no crap/I’m rhymin’ and designin’ with your girl in my lap
Also on this album is a remix of I NEED A BEAT (An insurmountable beat subject of discussion/you’re motivated with the aid of percussion/There’s no category, for this story, it will rock in any territory), which is actually LL’s first song ever released. It was a 12″ vinyl single, recorded and released in 1984, when Def Jam was still an indie label. This remix is credited to Jazzy Jay. Similar songs are the hard-charging YOU’LL ROCK (I’ll dust a rapper off if I require practice/Vocal cords so rough that I can eat cactus) and DANGEROUS, an ode to his DJ (He circumcises DJ’s while he’s on the airwaves/Till the missions’ complete, you’re a musical slave), which was LL’s 2nd 12″ single, later that same year.
But in addition to the braggadocio rhymes, LL shows his humorous side on three tracks. First up is YOU CAN’T DANCE, a song that’s literally all about LL insulting some guy who can’t dance. It may seem like odd subject matter for a rap song, but LL makes it work. Hey man, I’ve seen you, think your rockin’ it on the floor/You look like a moron, who let you in the door/To put the question bluntly, maybe your feet’s deformed/They should slap you in the teeth when you put your dancing shoes on.
There’s also THAT’S A LIE, a song with a really powerful drumbeat with LL rapping about some guy who’s always telling ridiculous lies (You said your grandmother’s twenty, when your mother’s twenty five/You said your father beat Joe Louis, but homeboy took a dive). This song it notable for Def Jam founder Russell Simmons (credited as Russell Rush) playing the liar, spouting a bunch of tall tales throughout the chorus. It’s pretty funny.
And then there’s DEAR YVETTE, with LL rapping to a girl from his school who has a slutty reputation. I don’t really know if the story is so/I can either ask Curly, or Larry or Moe/Or Earl, Shabazz, Lou, Mookie or Joe/Like Santa Claus said, you’re a ho-ho-ho. I guess there’s no denying that there’s a high level of misogyny in this song, but it was funny at the time. And it’s certainly tame compared to what’s come after that in rap songs…
Rounding out the album are two tracks that I feel have been somewhat overlooked in LL’s career. His song I NEED LOVE from his 2nd album, BIGGER AND DEFFER, is often credited as the first rap ballad, and started a trend of rappers writing songs about love and women. But that was not the first time LL did a song like that. He had two on this album. I WANT YOU was the b-side of his previously released single DANGEROUS. In the song LL raps over an uptempo beat about having a crush on a slightly older girl who is a friend of his sister’s, but she just thinks of him as a kid. So the song is him trying to prove himself to her and express his feelings. Very mature subject matter and clever lyrics for one so young. During the week I can’t speak, I’m messin’ up in school/Just to hear your name, girl, it makes me drool/As you sing falsetto on your college choir/My temperature level grows much higher.
It’s a great song, and there’s also an even better one, recorded new for this album, called I CAN GIVE YOU MORE, which has a hard beat punctuated by a piano.
So LL was already a pioneer with this debut. Very few albums, especially rap albums, can be described as perfect. But this is one of them. He was young and hungry, and Rick Rubin brought out the best in him. RADIO is a great effort overall.