In the early ’90s photographer Michel Comte shot nudes of an Italian fashion model by the name of Carla Bruni. 15 years later one such portrait was auctioned off by Christie’s for $91,000, la Bruni now better known as France’s first lady, recently married to President Sarkozy. Some years prior Comte also took pictures of a certain James Todd Smith, who presented his sweaty, muscular torso adorned with a solid chain hanging from his neck, a bracelet on one arm, a wrist band on the other, and, most prominently, an oversized four-finger name ring that said ‘Cool J.’ While Bruni was only just yet another mannequin to the world, L.L. Cool J, whose afore-described black-and-white portrait graces the cover of his fourth album, “Mama Said Knock You Out,” was already an icon that you couldn’t imagine being destined for greater things than being one of rap music’s premier artists.
Talented people will often try to find out if they are multi-talented. Carla Bruni started a serious as well as successful singer/songwriter career in France before she was discovered for the role as the prima donna in the country’s public life. Numerous rappers have attempted to gain entrance to Hollywood, and who knows, one or two might just develop political ambitions. L,L, Cool J’s inevitable acting career so far hasn’t overshadowed his significance as a rap legend. He is Mr. Longevity, looking back on one of hip-hop’s most prolific careers. Naturally, his significance to the artform itself has waned, but at the turn of the 1990s he overcame a crucial set-back, solidifying his status when he had already been written off. The feat was called “Mama Said Knock You Out.”
“Don’t call it a comeback” is a phrase that has entered pop culture parlance. As coined by L.L. at the beginning of the album’s title song, one of rap music’s most popular hardcore tracks. The beat pumps pure adrenaline, the dominant drums hitting hard but still rushing forward with speed and grace. To add male vocals harmonizing “Aah-aah-aah-ah” seems odd at first, but it gives the track a distinct, driving feature. L.L.’s performance is all about the sheer energy he releases. The purpose and determination are felt in every shouted line, even as some of the lyrics come across lackluster in print. But between “Don’t call it a comeback, I’ve been here for years / I’m rockin’ my peers, puttin’ suckers in fear” and “Olde English filled my mind / and I came up with a funky rhyme,” this is boisterous, braggadocious rap at its finest, right down to the song’s triumphant finale, the cutting of his classic “I excel / they all fell” rhyme. Rap has seen better verbal pugilists than Cool J, but only few would have the capacity to think of a line like “Shadowboxin’ when I heard you on the radio,” which very realistically visualizes the rapper’s mindstate and motivation. Fittingly, the video for the song became just as much a classic with a hooded L.L. claiming his championship belt in the boxing ring. In short, if rappers hope to intimidate competition, they have a lot to learn from L.L.: “Don’t you never / ever / pull my lever!”
“Mama Said Knock You Out” is L.L.’s song through and through. Still some rap songs become so universal, they are not just a temporary item of pop culture but enter public consciousness for good. “Knock You Out” is one of The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll and has been covered by a number of rock acts of various backgrounds. While not in that exact league, “To Da Break of Dawn” is a certified rap classic of its own. Originally released as a single from the “House Party” soundtrack, it was not only the first taste fans got of the reinvorgorated Mr. Smith, it was also the successful start of the collaboration with producer Marley Marl that was then extended to album-length. The beat has a heavy swing to it, but rather than new jack swing it too is true-blue hip-hop, living up to the claim that “this ain’t on a pop tip.” The targets aren’t named, but they are, in order, archnemesis Kool Moe Dee, pop sensation MC Hammer, and small-time hustler-turned-rap impresario Ice-T. It contains the line “Now you’re gettin’ done without vaseline” so effectively used by Ice Cube and Sir Jinx for another timeless diss track, “No Vaseline.” More emphasis is put on battle rhymes here, but even so they have to be instilled with all the emotions that make an insult really hit home. “To Da Break of Dawn” wasn’t the final word in the Cool J vs. Kool Moe feud, but nothing embodies L.L.’s audacity better than this attempt to kill three birds with one stone. The jabs at Hammer are more on point, but it’s the third verse directed at Ice-T that packs the most punch (provided you’re familiar with the preceding events):
“I’ma drink ya down over the rocks
while I freak on your album cover jocks
You’re gonna hear a real ill paragraph soon –
I took the cover right home to the bathroom
In the immortal words of L.L. – ‘Hard as hell’
Your broad wears it well
She’s the reason that your record sold a few copies
but your rhymes are sloppy
like Oscar, and you’re bound to get dropped
and stopped, I ain’t Murray the Cop
Nor am I Felix, but I got a bag of tricks
Mr. Pusherman, gimme a fix
So I can show ya I’m immune to them romper room tunes
You little hip-hop racoon
I’m not Scarface, but I want more beef
Before you rapped you was a downtown car thief
workin’ in a parking lot
A brother with a perm
deserves to get burned
So tell me how you like your cold cream
on a cone, in a bowl, or in a wet dream?
With your TV on channel fuzz
Uncle L, that’s how much damage he does
Here’s 5 dollars, catch a taxi cab
take your rhymes around the corner to the rap rehab”
Just for the fun of it, L.L. and Marley bang the war drums some more. “Eat Em Up L Chill” is heavy-duty hip-hop with the most basic ingredients, pounding drums and bass elements that create a spare yet spacious atmosphere. The idea is that James tames the blood-thirsty crowd (a more congruent spelling of the title would have been “Eat Em Up L! (Chill)”), still he makes no bones about who the last man standing will be:
“Come with it if you feel you’re full-fledged
or yell ‘Geronimo!’ and jump off the edge
Your e-n-d is near when I appear
The stage is yours – but wait until the smoke clears
Rhyme sayer and I’m here to lay a load
So watch a player when he’s playin’ in player mode
Uncle L’s bad and you’re soon to say
cause I rip the mic until the toon decay
I remember when you was an amateur
writin’ your rhymes, starin’ at my signature
Bought the album, analyzed the style
Tsk-tsk (Hatchew!) God bless you, child
I’m unique when I speak to a beat
Another rapper’ll fall when the mission’s complete
I daze and amaze, my display’s a faze
Every phrase is a maze as Uncle L slays
the competition that’s ‘lost in a freestyle’
cause on the mic I’m the golden child
with the magical wand that they’re callin’ a mike
and when MC’s approach, it turns into a spike”
“Murdergram (Live at Rapmania)” is more densely produced, an ominous bass loop laid over siren-like sounds and rattling uptempo drums, this time L.L.’s (hook-free) vocals given a live effect to go with the crowd cheers. This is the track that answers the criticism aimed at the third longplayer most directly, although strictly by turning the tables: “All of a sudden you’re so proud of black / a baseball hat – but you ain’t sayin’ jack (…) You preach about blackness but you represent wackness.” He blasts video rappers “only known cause of Yo! MTV Raps and Rap City and BET,” and smells a conspiracy: “‘Let’s get together and diss L.L.’ / ‘Use his name and your records might sell’ / I can’t believe you band of dead maggots / crawlin’ all over my name, I won’t have it.”
The duo also revisists “Walking With a Panther”‘s “Jingling Baby” with a ‘still jingling’ remix, which despite its club apparel is essentially a battle rap that has him “rollin’ over punks like a redneck trucker.” There is one track, however, that suggests that L.L. at least caught a glimpse of falling out of favor with the public. “Cheesy Rat Blues” may be one of the lesser engaging tracks on the album, but it’s interesting in various ways. With its (undeveloped) stick-up sideline, ten years later the song might have been called “Ante Up” (M.O.P.) or “How to Rob…” (50 Cent). For now it was L.L. offering up an unusually self-deprecating, partly cynical, partly comical alternative version of his career:
“I go to the park, they wanna baseball-bat me
I go to the mall, they throw my old tapes at me
I’m so horny
and every girl I know be like, ‘He’s so corny…’
I want money in a hurry
I’m gettin’ tired of leftover curry
I wanna fall off but I don’t know where the edge is
I’m so hungry I eat my neighbor’s hedges
Now I realize I gotta go for mine
– it’s windshield time
I take quarters, pennies, dimes and nickels
and a kiddy’s tricycle
I’m a desperado
I’ma steal your rims is my motto
I watch wrestling until I’m dizzy
So if you’re cashin’ your rent check, know how to get busy
Go to the drive-thru, run with a milkshake
Go to the supermarket, pocket a raw steak
I need beer
I’ma catch the Miller truck out there
You know how they throw the newspapers in the mornin’?
The owner don’t want ’em…
I’m the man that they’re laughin’ at
They say, ‘Cheesy rat, you ain’t all that'”
Fortunately, L.L. bounced back before this nightmare could become reality. More than just a gesture of appreciation towards his earliest rap buddies, three of which guested on the track, “Farmers Blvd. (Our Anthem)” was also emblematic of the album’s back-to-the-basics theme. With one track he even directly re-connected with his classic catalog. “The Boomin’ System” was to car systems what “I Can’t Live Without My Radio” was to boomboxes (with the wackest imaginable video to go). Presenting cars as amplifiers of that good old hip-hop attitude, it was also a homage to hip-hop itself, L.L. showing himself to always be in tune with rap: “People in the street see me bobbin’ my head / while I’m checkin’ out the rapper and the rhyme that he said.” The Cool J of “The Boomin’ System” was one of us as he warmed it up with Kane, fought the power with PE and told the cops you gots to chill with EPMD.
He also addresses police directly on “Illegal Search,” a swingbeat tune with a serious message on racial profiling, which details one of the liabilities of “frontin’ when you’re ridin’ around”:
“What the hell are you lookin’ for?
Can’t a young man make money anymore
wear my jewels and like freak it on the floor?
Or is it my job to make sure I’m poor?
Can’t my car look better than yours?
Keep a cigar in between my jaws
I drink champagne, to hell with Coors
Never sold coke in my life, I do tours”
It is followed by the spiritual “The Power of God,” ending “Mama Said Knock You Out” on a decidedly grave note. Last but definitely not least the album contains a couple of reasons why especially the ladies love Cool J. The gold single “Around the Way Girl” is nothing short of a milestone in rap’s complicated relationship with women, a heartfelt ode to the girl next door. Another single, “6 Minutes of Pleasure” loses the lyrical focus and is the type of pillow talk that only makes sense to lovers, while “Milky Cereal” half-heartedly revives L.L.’s wordplay phase. The title of “Mr. Good Bar” hints at a double entendre and indeed presents him as a romantic predator husbands and boyfriends would like to see balled and chained.
So what is “Mama Said Knock You Out,” in the grand scheme of things? Is it L.L.’s best album? Is it even one of rap’s best albums? That much is clear – it is, along with “Radio” and “Bigger and Deffer,” one of the three longplayers that define L.L. Cool J’s standing in the genre. It is 60 minutes of pure, unadulterated rap, a strong comeback and entrance into a new decade. Songs like “Around the Way Girl,” “The Boomin’ System,” “Farmers Blvd. (Our Anthem)” and “Illegal Search” strike the right balance between reality and, well, rap. While in no way eclipsing its predecessors, it was still a successful musical update and lived up to the promise that the names L.L. Cool J and Marley Marl held. Databases give a very typical laundry list of samples used for the record, but the way they are modified to the point where they become barely recognizable is production mastery of the highest order. Marley Marl creates a completely different monster out of “Funky Drummer” et al., some of the compositions sounding so modern that this reviewer wouldn’t be surprised to learn Marl protÃ©gÃ© Pete Rock played a supporting role in the production process. Yet for all the sturdy backup provided by the beats, it’s L.L.’s broad shoulders that the album’s success rests upon. It’s him who proclaims himself the Future of the Funk, while going back to the roots, to once more be an MC who lives by the sweat of his brow.
Back in 1990, the sight of “Mama Said Knock You Out” alone was able to restore your belief in L.L.. Its cover was, if you will, a visual interpretation of a line from “Eat Em Up L Chill”: “So much material – but not materialistic.” Cool J didn’t coast on his looks, the physicality was all in the music. The range of moods he was able to display and the simultaneous persuasiveness remain unmatched. A show of force, the double platinum album holds some of the most powerful and futuristic rap moments ever committed to wax. Only one year after what was generally considered a career-ending album, the Queens rapper made indeed a triumphant return, and the beautiful thing was he was absolutely sure of it. The L.L. Cool J of “Mama Said Knock You Out” is a god amongst men, a Greek ideal of a rapper, not without flaws, but able to do things mere mortals simply can’t.