Last fall, LL Cool J released his tenth studio CD, simply titled 10. That number alone speaks volumes about Cool J's place in the world of rap. His 1985 debut album, Radio, was released at a time when rap was still in its formative stages, before the arrival of such seminal acts as Public Enemy, Tupac and Dr. Dre. Cool J has survived changing trends and remains an artist so enduringly popular that even his least popular CDs have still sold millions.
That accomplishment and his staying power is something that even Cool J, whose real name is James Todd Smith, has difficulty explaining.
"I just thank God for the blessings," he says in a recent phone interview. "If I really knew how to answer that, I would bottle it and multiply it by thousands, know what I'm saying? I'd put it on the market for four billion. But one thing I do know is I really love what I do. I really care about it. I'm not afraid to make a record that may not be a huge commercial success, but has artistic integrity. I think that helps you in the long run."
10 is a pointed example of just how much Cool J is willing to shift his focus musically from album to album. His previous CD, 2001's G.O.A.T. Featuring James T. Smith: The Greatest of All Time, was a rough-edged, street-level effort filled with raw rhymes and beats. 10 is more sensitive in its subject matter and a more stylized effort.
"The G.O.A.T. album was a much more abrasive, much more aggressive record just in terms of the attitude of it," says Cool J. "10 is more laid back, it's smooth, but it has some really street records on it too. It's just a cooler record. It doesn't have any profanity on it. I'm not against profanity or against freedom of speech, either. It's like a little more flavor-oriented, a little more stylish. It's kind of like my last album was more of a puncher. This album is more of a flashy boxer."
The boxing analogy rings true for an artist whose most acclaimed album is probably his fourth CD, the Grammy-winning, multi-platinum 1990 smash Mama Said Knock You Out.
But for the native of Queens, who began rapping at age 9 and, at age 16, released his 1984 debut single "I Need A Beat," other high points would follow, including an NAACP Image Award and the honor of being the first rap artist featured on MTV's "Unplugged" series.
In 2001, Cool J began work on 10, in a series of collaborative sessions with two of the hottest production teams in urban music: the Neptunes and the Trackmasters. Besides taking extra time to craft the album, he juggles his music projects with a flourishing acting career.
He broke into acting in the early 1990s with small roles in films such as The Hard Way (with Michael J. Fox and James Woods), before landing larger roles in films such as Any Given Sunday, alongside Al Pacino and Cameron Diaz. He recently completed Mindhunters, a psychological thriller that features Val Kilmer and Christian Slater in lead roles.
"What attracted me to acting in the first place was just the whole fun of living another life, taking on the emotional and mental dynamics or just taking on someone else's whole persona," Cool J says. "There's something really interesting about being able to switch personas and change into a different person. It's cool."
Contrasting with his acting roles, Cool J has embraced one constant in his music and his personal life. For a man whose initials stand for "Ladies Love Cool James," it's not surprising that 10 is frequently described as a "ladies' album." One of Cool J's favorite tracks on 10 is "Love U Better," a single that recently topped Billboard magazine's R&B/hip hop chart. The song celebrates the values of a lasting relationship -- and it's a topic that hits close to home for Cool J. A married father of four who has made no secret of his love of family life, Cool J has long gone against the stereotypical image of the rapper as the high-living single man who brags of sexual conquests.
"My thing is it isn't so much that I've played it up, it's just that I didn't hide it," Cool J says of his marriage. "I would never use my family as a way and means to succeed in terms of just using them as a marketing tool. But I never denied them. And it makes you feel good that people can accept you with a family."