The Amazing Ascension of LL Cool J

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    Right from the start of his professional career, which was launched in 1985 with an album titled “Radio,” LL Cool J has exuded a special kind of self-confidence.

    There are some detractors who would say it bordered on something resembling conceit. But that kind of confidence is essential for anyone stepping into the show business world, where the odds are very much against succeeding.

    Diana Ross once said she never even thought of failure as an option. There was no “plan B.”

    LL Cool J was just as determined.

    His confidence is also exemplified by the fact that the meaning of the letters “LLCJ” is “Ladies Love Cool James.” And not to be overlooked is the way he licks his lips, which is more than just a habit. It’s something done to give the ladies another reason to “love Cool J.”

    That introductory album yielded two Top 20 singles, “I Can’t Live Without My Radio” and “Rock the Bells,” both of which played a key role in rap taking still more steps forward in establishing itself as a genre that was here to stay, as was hip-hop culture.

    Recalling those days recently, LL said, “I didn’t have a plan. It wasn’t strategic. I was just a kid who wanted to hear his voice on the radio, who wanted his first Mercedes. I wanted to feel what it was like to be empowered.”

    THE MAN BORN James Todd Smith on Long Island, New York, and raised in Queens has been feeling empowered for a long time now.

    His latest venture is costarring with Chris O’Donnell in “NCIS: Los Angeles.” The show, that airs Tuesday nights at 9 p.m. on CBS, has been hailed as the biggest hit of the new season.

    LL Cool J is special agent Sam Hanna. Chris O’Donnell is special agent G. Callen.

    As he inches deeper into middle age — he turned 42 in January — LL Cool J is, at the risk of sounding trite, sitting on top of the world, approaching the fame and achievement level of one of his heroes, fellow rapper-turned-actor Will Smith.

    Both can still deliver rap effectively but, understandably, the emphasis is on acting.

    The growth of LL Cool J, as a person and as a performer, is impressive. I interviewed him on two occasions. The first time was in 1989 when he was in town promoting his latest album, “Walking With a Panther.”

    THAT ALBUM was different from the two before it (“Radio” and “Bigger and Deffer”) because it included rougher material that had cuss words and one humorous song (“Big Ole Butt”) that was (rightfully) perceived as sexist.

    At least one female staffer from a popular Detroit radio station expressed her displeasure with the content of those songs, and LL, who was very young at the time, got defensive, although he remained respectful.

    The second interview was a one-on-one in 1995 when he was doing promotion work for a film he had made titled “Out-of-Sync.” It was not a good movie, but was of significance because for the first time LL Cool J was letting the public see his head. Prior to that he had always worn a hat, his trademark Kangol.

    He was so much more mature this time. But then again, one would expect a higher maturity level when one has gone from being barely out of his teens to a man of 26.

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