Ranking the best LL Cool J Albums

LL Cool J: Greatest of all Time.

While that well-worn has been attributed to Muhammad Ali, the first person I knew to popularize it was the immortal LL Cool J and, honestly, few can boast such lofty claims.

In my opinion, James Todd Smith is the most unappreciated rap legend we still have. He was a true trailblazer – his debut album with Def Jam set the tone for hip-hop in the 80s; his infamous Ladies Love persona (and the classic records that followed) predate every singing rapper y’all put on pedestals today, his wars with everyone from Kool Moe Dee to Canibus set the tone for current “rap beefs,” and over the course of nearly 40 years (!!!) has penned some of hip-hop’s most recognizable records.

He’s more than an actor or award show host, y’all. LL Cool J is the blueprint.

Today, we’re giving one of the all-time greats his just due by reviewing his career from bottom to top. As a note, we’ll be excluding his All World and All World 2 greatest hits collections (both of which are excellent and are great entry points for new fans). As always, quality, impact and legacy all factor into these rankings.

13. Todd Smith (2006)

Soul In Stereo rating: 2.5 stars out of 5

Edd said: Funny story about this one – Todd Smith dropped just days after my wedding date and I was such a big fan that I copped the album hours before we got on the road so I could rock it on the way to our honeymoon. Thankfully the honeymoon was way more interesting than this one. Todd Smith was flooded with guest stars (a tactic that would water down many latter-day LL releases) but few added anything outside of name value. Coincidentally, the best song is the wedding track with 112. Thanks for that one, LL. Y’all can have the rest.

Forgotten favorites: “Freeze,” “We’re Gonna Make It,” “Down the Aisle”

12. Authentic (2013)

Soul In Stereo rating: 3 stars out of 5

Edd said: Standing as the LL’s first album from under the Def Jam banner (and his final album to date), Authentic had quite the reputation to live up to. I guess that’s why LL called in the heavy hitters.  Authentic boasts an insane roster of A-list guest stars, including Earth Wind and Fire, Seal and Eddie Van Halen (RIP). Probably not surprisingly, Uncle L finds best chemistry with Uncle Charlie Wilson, who never fails to come through on his features. Unfortunately, the overload of other guests make LL feel like a visitor in his own home, as he sometimes plays second fiddle to the features. It’s an interesting curiosity but far from essential.

Forgotten favorites: “New Love,” “Something About You (Love the World)”

11. Exit 13 (2008)

Soul In Stereo rating: 3 stars out of 5

Edd said: LL’s final album for Def Jam was all about solidifying his legacy, but honestly, 2000’s G.O.A.T. did a much better job serving that purpose. LL sounds as motivated and aggressive as he had been in years, but the bloated tracklist and lack of a standout song erase some of the goodwill. What should have resounding parting shot to cap off a legendary career just winds up kinda … forgettable.

Forgotten favorites: “This is a Ring Tone Murder,” “Cry,” “Rocking with The G.O.A.T.”

10. 14 Shots to the Dome (1993)

Soul In Stereo rating: 3 stars out of 5

Edd said: The Comeback to the Comeback didn’t move the needle as strongly as its celebrated predecessor. 14 Shots to the Dome featured a weird tonal shift as LL randomly started to ride the gangsta rap wave of the era. No one listens to LL albums to hear him brag about shooting up the block – it just didn’t feel authentic. Thankfully the second half of the album pulls things together a bit.

Forgotten favorites: “Stand By Your Man,” “Funkadelic Relic,” “NFA (No Frontin Allowed)”

9. 10 (2002)

Soul In Stereo rating: 3.5 stars out of 5

Edd said: Yeah I know this one is called 10 to commemorate LL’s “10th” LP, but that’s only if you count the All World greatest hits collection – and if you read my intro you know we’re not doing that. This should have been called 9 Lives or something. 10 yielded several strong singles, with “Luv U Better” still reigning as one of LL’s last great mainstream hits. Overall though, this is another late-era mixed bag. Some album cuts hit hard, others are major misses.

Forgotten favorites: “Fa Ha,” “U Should,” “10 Million Stars”

8. Phenomenon (1997)

Soul In Stereo rating: 3.5 stars out of 5

Edd said: In many ways, Phenomenon felt like a lesser version of LL’s previous hit Mr. Smith. We’ve got the gritty posse cut, the R&B samples, heck, “Nobody Can Freak You” is basically “Doin It” Part 2. It’s certainly not bad but it does feel a bit like a Great Value knockoff – very listenable in the moment but not at all memorable outside of the singles.

Forgotten favorites: “Candy,” “Wanna Get Paid,” “Another Dollar”

7. Walking With a Panther (1989)

Soul In Stereo rating: 3.5 stars out of 5

Edd said: WHEW, OK, let’s set the stage for this one: “I Need Love” from LL’s previous album had become one of the most successful rap records to date. So, of course, LL decided to load up his next project with a bunch of ladies anthems. Kids, while your current faves almost exclusively make music for your little sister’s Tik Tok videos, back in the 80s, pandering to radio with sappy love songs was seen as a major faux pas in some circles. Going pop was the kiss of death. Walking With a Panther may have an infamous reputation, and it definitely was LL’s weakest release at the time, but it’s far from a bad album. Many of its singles have gone on to become some of his more memorable records. Honestly, this record’s biggest sin isn’t the ladies anthems, it’s overall inconsistency. A misstep, sure, but nowhere near the total failure its reputation labels it to be.

Forgotten favorites: “Smokin’ Dopin’,” “Def Jam in the Motherland,” “It Gets No Rougher “

6. The DEFinition (2004)

Soul In Stereo rating: 4 stars out of 5

Edd said: DEY CALL ME BIG ELLIE! Since when did we do that, LL? Timbaland had a major hand in the production of this one, including the divisive club banger “Headsprung.” It certainly didn’t feel like a Cool J song, but, hey, I thought it worked. In fact, that’s the story of The DEFinition – LL incorporating new sounds that may sound a bit jarring on first listen but wind up being a good fit. It doesn’t sound like an LL album and that’s cool – after 20 years, we needed a change. The DEFinition is not everyone’s cup of tea but I enjoy way more than I dislike here.

Forgotten favorites: “Rub My Back,” “Every Sip,” “Feel the Beat”

5. G.O.A.T. (Greatest of All Time) (2000)

Soul In Stereo rating: 4 stars out of 5

Edd said: Funny what a little motivation will do for you. After a war with Canibus questioned his relevance and years of R&B-flavored records overshadowed his harder hits, Jack the Ripper struck back. Though there were still several mainstream records scattered across the project, G.O.A.T. de-emphaized the usual radio fare for a renewed focus on heavy lyricism and street anthems. Hugging the block is always a good look for LL. The album gets bogged down with a lot of filler but it was a much needed reminder that LL was not to be crossed.

Forgotten favorites: “Fuhgidabowdit,” “Ill Bomb,” “You and Me”

4. Bigger and Deffer (1987)

Soul In Stereo rating: 4 stars out of 5

Edd said: A very worthy successor to LL’s landmark debut, Bigger and Deffer is mainly known for being home to “I Need Love,” a groundbreaking romance record that cemented LL as a superstar and has spawned countless clones over the years. But there’s much  more here than that – the L.A. Posse production team crafts some of the best beats of LL’s career, and lyrically he’s as sharp as ever. It was proof that his previous success was no fluke.

Forgotten favorites: “.357 – Break It On Down,” “The Breakthrough,” “The Do Wop”

3. Mr. Smith (1995)

Soul In Stereo rating: 4 stars out of 5

Edd said: I consider Mr. Smith to be winner of the people choice’s award for LL’s greatest work and it’s easy to see why – it’s the best blend of all things LL. Here, he perfectly mixes R&B Uncle L with boom bap bars and intensity. The album loses a little bit of steam in the second half but it’s still one of his most beloved releases and probably my personal favorite. BTW, I’m still very annoyed that the “Loungin Remix” was nowhere to be found when I purchased it in 96, but I’ll try not to hold on to 25-year-old grudges.

Forgotten favorites: “Make It Hot,” “Hip Hop,” “Hollis to Hollywood”

2. Mama Said Knock You Out (1990)

Soul In Stereo rating: 4.5 stars out of 5

Edd said: DON’T CALL IT A COMEBACK! Yes, this was the album that made the phrase iconic. After LL’s previous effort was panned for pandering way too much to the mainstream, Cool J hit back at critics insanely hard. Mama Said Knock You Out was a potent reminder of LL’s lyrical prowess – and yes, the radio fare was still here but much better balanced. The haters were silenced, hit records were born, LL’s reputation was restored and one of the most defining records of the era was immortalized.

Forgotten favorites: “Eat Em Up L Chill,” “Murdergram,” “6 Minutes of Pleasure”

1. Radio (1985)

Soul In Stereo rating: 5 stars out of 5

Edd said: Y’all love to toss around words like “historic,” “legendary” and “classic” for albums that instantly collapse under that weight. But LL Cool J’s debut lives up to each and every one of those terms. It’s the first LP released on the iconic Def Jam label, the coming out party for legendary producer Rick Rubin and became one of rap’s first big sellers. But all those stats would ring hollow if the quality wasn’t there and, unquestionably, it is. Although it celebrates its 35th birthday in about a month, it still holds up to this day, with the braggadocious bars and frank reflections on young life creating a blueprint for innumerable artists to follow for decades to come.  Radio is a true, legit, honest-to-God hip-hop classic and one of the greatest debut albums of all time.

Forgotten favorites: “Dear Yvette,” “Dangerous,” “I Need a Beat Remix”

It’s your turn: Which LL albums are your favorite? Let us know below.

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4 Comments

  1. Edd please do a maxwell ranking

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