In the history of hip-hop, there has never been a rapper who has retired and un-retired in the same day. On Monday (March 14), hip-hop legend LL Cool J announced a short-lived retirement on Twitter, hit delete on the tweets, then announced that a new album was on the way.
With over 13 million albums sold in a career spanning over 30 years, the entertainer born James Todd Smith still sounds like he has something to prove. “With hip-hop today, in this era, I feel like I have to make a contribution,” he recently told Billboard prior to his unretirement announcement. He cites that he’s made an impact in every other era of his career, and it’s no fib — his 1985 set Radio and 1987’s Bigger and Deffer helped establish the iconic label Def Jam Records. Nearly a decade later, 1995’s Mr. Smith spawned classics like “Doin’ It,” “Loungin’,” and “Hey Lover” featuring Boyz II Men. In 2004, “Headsprung” became a Top 20 Billboard hit.
Now, the NCIS: Los Angeles star, Lip Sync Battle host, five-time Grammy host and frequent winker is now turning his focus to his 14th studio effort. While he revealed in October 2014 that his next LP would be dubbed G.O.A.T. 2 (the follow-up to 2000’s Greatest of All Time set), he reveals that he’s working on a new untitled project. The only teaser of what’s to come is a short video of LL in the lab with Dr. Dre for his Apple radio show The Pharmacy. Here, the New York rep discusses his legacy on-wax, his Eminem collaboration and why he feels he needs to give this era “a taste of LL Cool J.”
Billboard: How did you link up with Dr. Dre in the studio?
LL Cool J: I went to the studio to see my man Pooh and hang out with Dre and Preemo. One thing lead to another and they were like, ‘Yo, you wanna do a drop?’ I was like, ‘Nah, let me spit something’; Dre went and grabbed the titanium laptop. He pressed play and the rest is history. I grabbed the pen and pad and did it right there. That’s what it’s about. I love the culture. The same spirit that got me to where I’m at is the spirit that was there in that moment. It’s just rhyming because you love to rhyme, and because you love the beat, and because you’re around your friends just having a good time.
Is that the same spirit you want to bring to G.O.A.T. 2?
I put G.O.A.T. 2 on hold. It was good but I didn’t feel like it was ready yet. I am working on another project that will be real special. If people like that freestyle [on Dr. Dre’s show], they’re gonna go crazy over this album. It’s going to change a lot of what’s going on out there. People will take a second look at what they’ve been listening to after it comes out.
In the lab with Dr Dre. [The Pharmacy #Beats1 Apple Music Director: Rashidi Natara Harper]
Posted by LL Cool J on Thursday, March 10, 2016
Do you have a title for it yet?
Nah, I haven’t titled it yet. It’s going to be real special. It will be at the level of being worthy for me to put it out. I want to give this era a taste of LL Cool J. With hip-hop today, in this era, I feel like I have to make a contribution. I’ve made a contribution in every other era. I haven’t made a high powered one in this era yet. I look forward to doing that. I think it’s going to set a standard for the culture in general. It’ll make things a lot more fun.
With this upcoming album, who can we expect to hear in terms of features and production?
As far as features, I don’t know if it will have any. In terms of production, I’ll be making an announcement. Believe me, when I make the announcement people will definitely stand up and pay attention. [laughs] The world will be excited. I think it will be good for our culture and for all these new fans who grew up in this era. The most fun for me will be introducing music to people who only know me for my acting, my hosting and all of that stuff. They’ll get a chance to see me in my original element.
One collaboration you had talked about in the past was with Eminem. What’s causing the delay in release?
He actually did his vocals and everything. It really happened. I want the overall project to be good. Em is my man and I love him. He’s also a friend of mine, so we’ll definitely get it poppin’. The world has been waiting for that. They’ll get it the right way and it’s gonna be amazing. People should just gear up for this project. Quote me on the things I said about it, and hold me accountable when I deliver it.
According to Em’s infamous prank call on you years ago, the first time you two met was at a Foot Locker. Can you share more of that story?
It’s funny, I hardly remember it. I just know that meeting Em and talking to him, he’s such a student of hip-hop. He knew all of my music. He called up the radio station singing “Go Cut Creator Go” and that’s a song nobody knows until you’re a diehard LL aficionado. Every time I’ve met Em, he’s had a great spirit. We’ve hung out many times. When I got my [Hollywood] star, he did something cool for me — he bought me a cool ad in a mag. He’s always given me love. I respect and appreciate what he’s done in his career. It always made me feel good to see somebody that I inspired take it to that level. These are the kinds of people that, at one time in their lives, saw me on TV and they were rapping along then went on to have such a illustrious career. I love Em and look forward to including him in this next project.
On Twitter, you went on a little rant about people forgetting that you’re one of the greatest to ever touch a microphone. Do you think you’re underappreciated as far as what you’ve achieved in hip-hop?
No, I don’t feel like I’m underappreciated. I do think sometimes people forget. The reality is hip-hop culture, not unlike a lot of cultures, is ‘What have you done for me lately?’ Sometimes people need to be reminded, that’s all. They see when you’re off having success in LaLa land, doing your thing, hosting shows in tuxedos, doing these lip sync battles, and running around catching terrorists on NCIS: Los Angeles, people might think that he doesn’t have the bars or [is] beyond us. Maybe they think it was a fluke, but there’s no telling. That’s what makes me a little more unique than the average artist — I’ve done many things at a high level.
At the end of 2014, you brought out Canibus at Barclays Center to squash the beef you two had. What did that moment mean for you?
What I was basically trying to say, to my fans, was to let him have love and let him move on with his life. What I was saying to his fans was, ‘Hey, I respect your artist, your legend and icon.’ I told Canibus I want to see him succeed and have a career and keep going. I’m not the type of guy who wants to hold people back. Sometimes, you have to set an example too. Yes, we had a beef and it was legit. We went back and forth on records but it never got into anything crazy in the streets. At the end of the day, you got to move beyond that. We had to bury the hatchet to show people it’s all love. I just wanted to give the man some respect. You can’t get respect if you don’t give it.
In an interview, you mentioned how you’re a fan of Peewee Longway. I’m interested to know how you found out about him and what made you become a fan of his?
I listen to everything. I go through YouTube all the time. I listen to all kinds of DJs and mixtapes. I just came along some of his music and I felt like I was hanging out with him. [Laughs] When you watch his videos, you feel like you’re there. I just liked it. He’s a cool artist. I love all kinds of hip-hop: trap rap, the old boom bap. I like West Coast [rap], I like that Texas vibe down there. I like the Bay Area and all that they do, and the Midwest. I like all music so if I find something I vibe with, I’m comfortable voicing that. I like to see these guys succeed.
Can you name some of your favorites right now?
I like the Dot Mob, Murda Mook, Dutch Brown and T-Rex to name a few. I was talking about this in the studio tonight. I like everyone from the newest of the new like Anderson [.Paak] all the way to a Brand Nubian. On top of that, I like all types of music. Leonard Cohen, Def Leppard, Paul McCartney, Sister Sledge, you name it.
As someone who has been performing for close to four decades, how has the art of performing changed for you from 1985 up to today?
It’s harder, but not for the reasons you’re probably thinking. It’s harder, because I got more hits. [Laughs] It’s 1985 and you got two singles — that’s a good night. We gonna go, perform at the roller rink, get some girls and be out. When you have 10, 12, 14 albums and you got to be onstage for an hour and a half, you have fans of many different generations. They come to see a concert now. Anybody who has seen LL Cool J live knows I leave it all on the stage. It’s much more intricate, there’s a lot of details and a lot of work that goes into putting together a show. Me and DJ Z-Trip try to make it fun for people so they can walk away feeling like they’ve been entertained. You will have a good time and walk away feeling like you had a hip-hop experience. You get immersed in the culture and an opportunity to learn about hip-hop and where it came from. I want fans to know the history from someone who was raised by the first generation and has been around since then.
Do you have any memorable moments from touring over the years?
Oh my goodness, I got so many memorable moments. You wouldn’t believe it.
You can write a book on it.
[Laughs] I got a lot of war stories. One day, I’ll get into all that. That’s a good idea, though. I need to write a book about my world of touring.
What is your favorite song from your discography and why?
Favorite song from my discography? Aw, man. [Pauses] The first one that popped in my mind was a song I made called “The Power Of God.” Mind you, I’m not one of those guys who is going to stand up on the soapbox and tell people what to believe. Everyone should be free to believe what they want to believe. There’s something to me about “The Power Of God.” I wrote it in a stream of consciousness. The pen literally never left the page other than to turn it. It was a very odd experience. That’s the only song I ever wrote like that. I’m not saying it’s the world’s best flow or metaphorical — it’s just a very powerful song. My career is a testament to that. Everyone has their own beliefs. For me, if it wasn’t for my faith in God, I wouldn’t be able to be doing what I’m doing. At least, not at this level.
Now on a pure entertaining level and some fun shit, “Doin’ It” [is my favorite]. It’s the perfect beat, perfect rhyme flow, and the chick is moaning. You can dance to it and it sounds mean in a club. The “Doin’ It” joint is just right. That’s why Fab and Nicki [Minaj] did it over, which of course, I co-signed. I was happy to hear them do it over. I love that joint.