LL Cool J kickstarted his career in 1985 with his platinum-selling debut album, Radio. Over the next few years, he helped take rap mainstream, selling out arenas and becoming an ever-present fixture on the charts. In the 1990s, he cemented his status as the grandmaster of rap with albums like Mama Said Knock You Out and Mr. Smith. Despite a brief flirtation with retirement in 2016 (which lasted just long enough for him to figure out how to delete a tweet), he’s still as big today as he ever was. Here’s our pick of the 10 best LL Cool J songs of all time.
10. I Can’t Live Without My Radio
I Can’t Live Without My Radio was released in 1985 and sounds like it. There’s the requisite drum machine providing the backing and the usual overblown 80s production. There are even a few fake handclaps thrown in for good measure. For all that, it’s still dynamite, with LL delivering his lines with so much passion, you really do believe he can’t live without a ”stereo thumping like a savage beast.”
9. Jingling Baby
Everyone knows LL can do battle raps. There’s not much question about his talent for romantic hits either. But as udiscovermusic.com notes, one of the things that sometimes escapes people’s notice is just how many party anthems he’s given us over the years. But make no mistake – if you want to get down on the dancefloor, LL has the goods. Jingling Baby is one of the best. It’s not complicated, but the hook is huge. It was originally released as the final single from LL’s third album Walking With a Panther, but the remix (Jingling Baby (Remixed But Still Jingling)) from Mama Said Knock You Out is worth checking out too.
8. Going Back to Cali
LL’s third studio album, Walking with a Panther, was a huge hit, peaking at number six on the Billboard 200 and spawning a series of Top 20 singles. Of those, Going Back to Cali is one of the best. The bass is big, the groove is huge, and the repetitive chant of ”I’m goin’ back to Cali, Cali, Cali” proves that monster hooks don’t need to be melodic. Rick Rubin’s production, meanwhile, is as flawless as you’d expect.
7. Hey Lover
Before LL, rappers bragged about their conquests with impunity. It wasn’t big, it wasn’t clever, and if there was any love involved, it wasn’t the kind most women would sign up for. And then along came LL and proved that you could sing about women without sounding like a misogynistic relic in the process (and sell a lot more records to boot). On Hey Lover, he dials up the seduction to the max. Glossy, sexy, and with some very able support from Boyz II Men, it’s what late nights were made for. Released as the first single from the album Mr. Smith, it made it to No. 3 in the charts and scooped a Grammy for Best Rap Solo Performance.
6. Doin’ It
Next up is another love song, albeit a much more libidinous, explicit one than Hey Lover. Recorded as a duet with LeShawn, Doin’ It is about exactly that. It doesn’t leave a lot to the imagination, but it’s still a heap of fun, with both LL and LeShawn injecting so much heat into their delivery, it’s a wonder they didn’t start a fire. Released as the second single from Mr. Smith, it peaked at No. 9 on the Billboard Hot 100 and No. 7 on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs Billboard chart.
5. Rock The Bells
The third single from LL’s platinum-selling debut is a stone-cold classic. It’s got the beats, the hooks, and a mammoth performance from LL. It’s also got Rick Rubin on production, which never hurts. The one thing it doesn’t have is any bells (for those, you’ll need to track down the original version released on 12-inch vinyl, which is absolutely riddled with the things). Released as the third single from Radio, it peaked at No. 17 on the Hot R&B/ Hip-Hop Songs chart.
4. The Ripper Strikes Back
Note to young upstarts: don’t take on LL Cool J if you’re not prepared to lose. When a young rapper named Canibus tried it back in 1998, LL decimated him with his response. ”You want the fame, now you’re famous overnight/ Famous for getting f—ed by a stick of dynamite,” LL fires out. Predictably, Canibus’ debut album flopped.
3. Around the Way Girl
Around the Way Girl is a piece of upbeat, R&B fusion with a big bassline and a sugary chorus that has hit written all over it. Which is exactly what it was – released as the third single from LL’s 1990 album Mama Said Knock You Out, it reached No. 9 on the Billboard Hot 100 (LL’s first top ten entry on the chart), No. 5 on the R&B chart and No. 7 on the dance music chart.
2. Jack the Ripper
Canibus wasn’t the first rapper to make the monumental mistake of starting a rap war with LL Cool J. Back in 1989, Kool Moe Dee decided that LL had stolen his style and was disrespecting old school rap pioneers like Grandmaster Caz and Melle Mel by claiming to be “rap’s new grandmaster” without having paid his dues. On his album Haw Ya Like Me Now, he threw down the gauntlet to LL. LL responded with Jack the Ripper. ”A washed-up rapper needs a washer,” LL raps, thereby crushing Kool Moe Dee into oblivion and declaring himself the very worthy successor to Grandmaster Caz, Melle Mel, et al.
1. Mama Said Knock You Out
Described by ew.com as ” 4 minutes, 49 seconds of classic hip-hop braggadocio over a clattering, relentless breakbeat,” Mama Said Knock You Out finds LL taking aim at every critic, real or imagined, who said he’d lost his game on his third album, Walking with a Panther. ”Don’t call it a comeback/ I’ve been here for years,” he yells. And he had. A veteran of the industry at the age of just 22, and, with this song, already a legend.