Thursday, January 23, 2014

LL Cool J's "Radio"

I wouldn’t say that I had made a conscious effort to avoid the musical output of LL Cool J, but I had certainly never made an effort to seek any of it out.  Like many people in my age group, I was always well aware of his singles but none of those songs that I heard on MTV in my youth really attracted my attention the way that other rap music did in the 90s.  I was much more interested in seeing Snoop, Dre, or anything remotely gangsta and foreign to my experience as a kid than I was in hearing some cheesy rap song about love (let me amend that - I am still more interested in gangsta rap than I am in love rap).  When “Doin’ It” came out, I would have much rather listened to anything else at all but as a fifteen year old kid, I still watched the video because, uh well, dancing women.  There was nothing I saw of LL Cool J’s output outside of “Mama Said Knock You Out” that drew me toward him.  His growing focus at this time on acting certainly didn’t attract me either.

I pretty much forgot about LL Cool J, the rapper, for years until stumbling upon the track “Rock the Bells” randomly.  After realigning my neck and calming my nerves, I allowed myself the possibility that maybe he wasn’t so bad.  At this point, I was aware of his importance in the early development of hip-hop and I had decided to check out his early work.  Then “Accidental Racist” happened (the rapper’s squirm-inducingly terrible collaboration with country singer Brad Paisley) and any goodwill LL Cool J had earned from me was obliterated.  Let us take a moment to contemplate the lyric “RIP Robert E Lee but I gotta thank Abraham Lincoln for freeing me, nah mean.”

Nearly a year later, the idea materialized to start a blog dedicated to listening to hip-hop albums I had always wanted to explore but never had, and inspired by another listen of “Rock the Bells,” I decided on LL Cool J’s Radio as the subject of my inaugural post.  Radio was LL’s debut LP as well as the first full-length put out on Def Jam Records.  I felt that given these firsts, Radio was the most appropriate choice for my first foray into blogging and chose the name of the blog in reference to both the album and Cool J’s first single.

Radio was released in 1985, in the early years of hip-hop music’s second decade.  Hip-hop had found successes prior to this time in groups such as Sugarhill Gang, Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five, Kurtis Blow, and many others.  The emergence of the Def Jam label and its artists including Run DMC, LL Cool J, and the Beastie Boys built upon these earlier successes and began to usher in a new era of rap in the mid-80s that moved away from the discotheque into more aggressive territory.  Through meticulous research, I have unearthed a rare clip from the not-at-all fictional film Krush Groove that documents LL Cool J’s historic signing to Def Jam.

The song LL performs in the above clip is “I Can’t Live Without My Radio,” the opening track on his debut album and a fantastic start to what is an overall excellent LP.  “My Radio” sets the template for what the listener can expect for the duration of the record.  Cool J strikes a tough guy pose, energetically spitting rhymes like “terrorizing my neighbors with the heavy bass/I keep the suckas in fear by the look on my face.”  His lyrics are aggressive and are perfectly reflected in the heavy crunch of Rick Rubin’s drum machine, which mercilessly pounds your eardrums even if you have inexplicably resisted the urge to crank the volume to ungodly levels.

This beat blitzkrieg continues through the next song, “Dear Yvette,” a criticism of a young woman LL feels is too promiscuous.  The rapper’s condemnation of Yvette’s sexual proclivity is ironic considering the meaning behind his name (Ladies Love Cool James) and his own proclamations of being successful with the opposite sex.  The third track is a ballad, though I assume not directed toward Yvette.  It starts out innocently enough with LL inviting a girl to his house for “doughnuts and milk” and to “listen to a pop tune maybe.”  However, as the track proceeds, it becomes…creepy.  He attempts to to persuade the object of his affection to leave her boyfriend because “I can give you more” and consistently likens the boyfriend to the great deceiver, Satan.  Eventually, LL begins to envision his own death and suffers a complete mental breakdown.  “I hoot in the morning to the crack of sunlight/but my agony continues till it reaches night/sweet image of your face appears on the wall/and the scene is so eerie I run through the hall/I look at the sky, then I search for the moon/realize it’s 3 o’clock in the afternoon.”  Huh.

The following clip was filmed for Dutch TV and in it, LL Cool J discusses love songs and hides his psychosis behind the mask of a charming, young, and talented artist.

The first half of Radio concludes with another energetic battle rap in “Dangerous” and a “hidden” freestyle track that promises the listener that the second half of the record is “liver” than what they just heard.  This promise is immediately fulfilled by “Rock the Bells,” the only track on this record with which I was familiar prior to listening to Radio.  This song is simply a classic hip-hop joint featuring two-fisted, smash your teeth in production and “hard as hell” braggadocio delivered so forcefully that you can’t help but believe that there’s truth behind the lyrics.  Simply by listening to this track, I feel approximately 50% more badass.  “Rock the Bells” alone is worth the price of entry into Radio.  There was one lyric in the song, however, that confused me enough to cause me to turn to the internet for clarification.  Thankfully, Rap Genius exists and was able to shed some light on the ambiguous meaning of the lyric:

Unfortunately, the rest of the album simply cannot live up to the high mark set by “Rock the Bells,” though “You’ll Rock” comes very close.  “You’ll Rock” features some of the strongest rhymes on the album as well as some fantastic scratches from LL’s DJ Cut Creator and heavy bass courtesy of Rubin.  Radio concludes with a second ballad “I Want You,” which also includes an invitation to “eat doughnuts and milk, listen to a pop tune.”  Why didn’t I listen to this album as a teenager?  Clearly LL Cool J, seventeen at the time he recorded Radio, had the dating game on lock.  The key is Krispy Kreme.

Radio was quite successful both critically and commercially and launched LL Cool J into stardom.  It even afforded him a trip to England (see below).  Outside of critical and commercial reception, an album is most successful to me if it meets two criteria:  I enjoyed listening to it and would listen to it again.  In the case of Radio, I can assuredly say that it met both standards.  I would highly recommend that you tune in Radio and something, something puns.

Hopefully, you enjoyed what you read here and will read this blog again.  The next album I will be covering is Tha Dogg Pound’s Dogg Food.  My mom, who is very much not a fan of the raps, is going to listen to some of that one too…so that should prove to be fun for all involved (except probably my mom).

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