LOS ANGELES — After spending the first half of his workday pretending to be an undercover agent on the hit CBS procedural "NCIS: Los Angeles," LL Cool J is relaxing in his trailer at Paramount Studios, answering questions about what's real.
That radio he couldn't live without? Real. His need for love? Still real. Lisa, Angela, Pamela, Renee? Real, real, real and real — if he closes his eyes, he can see their faces. And yes, back in 1990, when his critics were encouraging the 22-year-old rap pioneer to consider an early retirement, Grandma Cool J really-truly did urge young LL to knock those fools unconscious.
But as a rapper, what interests LL most is the unreal. He thinks of rapping as an imaginative opportunity — flexing your make-believe muscles allows you to learn the breadth of your humanity, the height of your hopes and the depth of your desire. Imagination is what allowed LL to channel his libido into an ode to breakfast on "Milky Cereal." It gave him permission to rhyme "cornea" with "hornier" in the first verse of "Back Seat." It's how he came up with the most mysterious sex metaphor in rap history and then named the entire song after it: "Pink Cookies in a Plastic Bag Getting Crushed by Buildings." Keeping it real can be a reflex for most rappers, but it's LL Cool J's imagination that made his music feel stranger, sexier, funnier, more fun, more alive.
"Music is about the feel, and I always went for the feel-good," the 49-year-old says on the Paramount lot. "That's a very odd choice in hip-hop."
Very true. But isn't every choice odd when you're the first person tasked with making it? Rap music's first big solo star, LL got his start as a teenage brag machine and was quickly sent to the front lines of pop's vanguard, where he continued to pull rhymes out of thin air and chisel them into the American marble. On Sunday, he'll be the first rapper to receive the Kennedy Center Honors, and he'll be recognized not just for the magnetism of his songbook but for helping code the DNA of rap itself.
"I remember the first rhyme I wrote," Eminem said recently in a podcast hosted by producer Rick Rubin and journalist Malcolm Gladwell. "It was so much of LL."
It's easy to imagine umpteen dozen other rappers saying the same thing. You can hear LL's playfulness through the entirety of Missy Elliott's wild-style discography. Nearly every verse that ever leaked from Pharrell Williams's mouth can be traced back to 1990's smirking "Mr. Good Bar." Rap duo Run the Jewels took their name from a random scrap of interstitial blab on LL's "Cheesy Rat Blues." And ever since Kanye West and Drake began steering the genre into a new century, they've been bending it back toward the zone of vulnerability where LL proudly stood during 1987's "I Need Love," our planet's first mega-massive rap ballad.
Since then, LL has preferred rapping to women instead of just rapping about them — but he's never thought of this approach as a stroke of marketing savvy or a tacit gesture of inclusion (even though it's been applauded as both). He says "I Need Love" obeyed teenage logic, plain and simple: "Who goes to school and only talks to the guys?"
School. Right. Let's not forget that LL Cool J started rapping at block parties when he was 13, and that he dropped his first single at 16, and that he had a debut album out at 17, and that it went gold when he was 18. He was busy stomping around the edge of a totally new art form. And he was just a kid.
"I never really felt like a kid, though," he says. "I remember my 8th birthday, just walking down the street, feeling completely present. . . . By the time I was 17, I had bought my mother a house. That's bizarre, looking back on it."
He was born James Todd Smith on Jan. 14, 1968, and was raised in a chaotic household in Queens. He was only 4 when his father shot his mother during an altercation — his mom survived and recovered; his dad fled to California — and in the years that followed, his mother's new boyfriend physically abused and verbally belittled him.
As he entered adolescence, listening to the big talk of the Sugarhill Gang, the Treacherous Three, Grandmaster Flash, the Cold Crush Brothers and the Funky Four Plus One helped him feel a few inches taller. "Rap music definitely made me feel more empowered," he says now. "In the 'hood, you're sitting in it like hot-dog water. It takes a certain amount of tenacity and creativity to pull your mind out of that water and dry it off."
At 13, he began performing at parties and church basements as LL Cool J — a beautiful little poem in and of itself, short for "Ladies Love Cool James." At 16, he sent a demo tape to Rubin, who was preparing to launch Def Jam Recordings out of a cluttered Manhattan dorm room. But it was actually Ad-Rock of the Beastie Boys who fished LL's cassette out of Rubin's mess and slid it into the deck.
Before long, LL Cool J was on his way to becoming a new kind of pop icon — a heartthrob in a gold chain and a red Kangol bucket hat making powerfully loud music about the power of loud music. "Walking down the street to the hardcore beat/While my JVC vibrates the concrete," he rapped on "I Can't Live Without My Radio," declaring his existence to the universe while slapping exclamation points on every rhyme.
But the tumultuous world of rap moved almost as fast back then as it does today, and after just a few years in the limelight, LL had fallen behind the times in the eyes and ears of his critics. So he paired up with producer Marley Marl and in the summer of 1990 dropped "Mama Said Knock You Out," a vibrant, tenacious, career-defining album whose title track provided one of rap's best-known rallying cries: "Don't call it a comeback/I been here for years."
Even better, LL's new and improved toughness didn't cancel out his sensitivity — especially not during "Around the Way Girl," an effervescent paean to black womanhood that ends with LL blowing smooches to Lisa, Angela, Pamela and Renee. "It's one of the albums that helped shape the direction of where rap and everything was going at that time," Marl told Vanity Fair in 2015 on the album's 25th anniversary.
LL remembers those highly collaborative hours spent in Marl's Upstate New York studio recording "Mama Said Knock You Out," feeling as if he was at his creative peak. "The incense was burning, and the vibe was amazing," he says, beaming as if he'd just caught a whiff of it. "We'd make runs to 7-Eleven to get snacks and listen to the music in the car. Everything about it was just fun. . . . Musically, I don't think I've connected with anyone like I did with Marley."
After that, he stretched out. In 1995, he took a starring role on an NBC sitcom, "In the House." In 1999, he smuggled the slogan for FUBU, a line of hip-hop apparel that had hired him as a spokesman, into a verse he rapped in a Gap commercial. In the early 2000s, he made some astonishingly sleek music with Timbaland and the Neptunes. And right now, "NCIS: Los Angeles" is coasting through its ninth season on the air.
In 1998, Vibe magazine posited that "LL will never be as mass-market as Will Smith." It was intended as a compliment but felt it like an insult, and turned out to be a bunk prophecy anyway. "I just wanted to have freedom," LL says all these years later. "That's why I chose to do acting. . . . I didn't want to be handcuffed to one thing, and now I have options."
That sense of freedom has always been central to his musicmaking, and he says that whenever he sits down to work out a rhyme, the only person he's ever trying to impress is himself. "The first thing I need to feel is amused," LL says. "Once I'm amused, I don't really care if you think it's technically sound, or how my paragraph laid, or if I had good internal rhyme, or if my punchlines were tight. I'm weird like that."
Now he's talking about craft, addressing his phantom detractors: "I don't know if people understand how much intellectual prowess it takes to write something that's simple. Let me give you an example. . . . Tolstoy is far more complex than the Lord's Prayer. But which one was harder to write? In rap, there's this tendency to worship complexity, and that's a rule I've always bucked."
"I don't worship complexity, man," he says. "And I do think you can be successful if you're willing to put yourself in a position where you might look foolish."
Last time fans thought he looked foolish was during the fallout from "Accidental Racist," a 2013 duet with country singer Brad Paisley about a white Starbucks customer and a black barista who try to solve America's most unsolvable problem. LL was excoriated for equating the Confederate flag with a do-rag, among other things, but he stands firmly by his lyrics and the purity of his intentions. "It was an idealistic hypothesis about where we could be [as a nation] and where we could go if we found a little more empathy and a little more forgiveness," he says. "In the long run, I don't see how forgiveness and empathy can lose."
And in this moment, grown-up LL Cool J seems every bit as confident, sincere, big-hearted and audacious as that kid from Queens in the red Kangol. He still believes in the power of imagination to change reality, for one reason: It changed his.