LL Cool J: 'I Do What Comes Natural, What I Love'

More than two decades into his career, this artist continues to diversify, but keeps his head in the game.

Grow.

That word pops up frequently in conversation with LL Cool J. Indeed, since the rapper became the first Def Jam artist to release a single some 20 years ago, it seems to have become part of his mantra.

His focus on professional and spiritual growth has resulted in a slew of hit records, two Grammy Awards and noteworthy roles on TV (including hosting the 2005 Billboard Music Awards in December) and in film. That still does not take into account his numerous humanitarian efforts, his role as a product pitchman or the recent launch of his Todd Smith clothing line during New York's Fashion Week.

"I'm having a great time, a real good time," he tells Billboard. "Very thankful about where my career is at. Hopefully, I'll be able to give people some good, quality music and film in the future."

Fresh off the success of his latest film with Queen Latifah, "Last Holiday," and on the eve of releasing his 12th Def Jam album -- "Todd Smith," which comes from the rapper's given name, James Todd Smith -- LL looks back on what has powered his double-decade career.

The theme of "Last Holiday" was all about possibilities in life. This could be applied to your own. Did you think 20 years ago that you would be where you are now?

Honest to God, I can tell you that the answer is no. I mean, where I'm at was a fantasy back then. I guess I focus so much on trying to build and trying to grow that maybe sometimes I don't even pay attention to where I'm at.

What was your aim starting out? Just to record and album and get on the charts?

A: My aim was just to hear my record on the radio. I just wanted to hear my record on the radio and get a Mercedes [laughs]. In that order [laughs]. That was it. I just kept working at it and God blessed me.

I've just been focusing on growing as a human being spiritually and as a businessman and as an artist; To consistently go after new things and allow myself to mature. Let more people into my life to help me creatively and on all levels. This all has just been a growing process.

In the past you have said you feel you are at the beginning of your career again because there are so many possibilities out there. Do you still feel that is true?

Yes, of course. I'm still very young in dog years. I've just been doing this a long time in terms of being a professional. I still look forward to having a lot more fun [and] introducing the world to some interesting things I have going on in my life, [like] doing more films [and] working on more companies.

Since finishing your new album, "Todd Smith," how would you compare the studio process then versus now?

If I had to choose whether or not it gets easier or harder, I would have to say it gets harder. Well, you know what, maybe that's not correct. It's just different. The challenge always becomes trying to do the best work you can, trying to make the best music you can, trying to do something that's really exciting -- and at the same time not repeating yourself.

On the album you have as guests Mary J. Blige, Lyfe Jennings, Freeway, Jennifer Lopez again...

Also Mary, Mary, 112, Teairra Mari, Ginuwine. Juelz Santana.

What producers did you work with?

A: Bink, Trackmasters, Pharell Williams, Jermaine Dupri.

In such a youth-oriented industry, do you feel pressured to make records that will attract that market?

I don't really know how to do that. All I can really do is what I do and what comes natural, what I love.

All I can do is make the best music I can and hope that people enjoy it. Whatever project I'm involved with, I try to make it positive and fun and cool. I just make it to my taste, in other words, and go from there.

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