HOLLYWOOD — When LL Cool J speaks, it's hard not to pay rapt attention. During interviews, the hip-hop singer exudes the intensity and self-confidence befitting a rapper who has managed to win over music critics and fans alike during a fruitful 12-year recording career.
If LL Cool J were on a football team, he'd be a prime candidate for captain, if not player-coach. The 28-year-old, who plays the Freedman Forum in Anaheim on Friday, is no shrinking violet, especially when it comes to defending his street credibility.
Good thing, since that's just what he's had to do since signing on to co-star in the NBC comedy series "In the House," which appeared as a midseason replacement a year ago.
Unlike Will Smith, who became the first hip-hop figure to make the move onto a TV sitcom with the "Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" in 1990, LL Cool J entered sitcom land as a bona fide cutting-edge rap artist. (Queen Latifah also made a similar crossover into TV comedy with Fox's "Living Single.")
"In the House" is pretty standard fair in both style and content. Yet LL Cool J insists that his involvement in the show has done nothing to soil his reputation among his most devoted fans. In fact, he believes it has bolstered his image as a risk taker and maverick.
"A person who just listens to rap records might think, 'Oh, LL's doing a TV show, and he's going to lose his street credibility,' " said the Queens, N.Y.-born musician during a recent interview on the show's set.
"But a person who is part of the hip-hop culture would say, 'Oh LL's hustling; he's expanding; he's moving on even more, and that's good.' It's the difference between a critic listening to a rap record and [a person who is] understanding and living hip-hop culture. [Fashion designers] Tommy Hilfiger and Donna Karan may not be from the streets, but their clothes have street credibility. It's the culture that give you the credibility."
Now winding up its first full season, "In the House" finds LL Cool J playing Marion Hill, a sidelined pro-football player turned landlord. Debbie Allen stars as Jackie Warren, a recently divorced woman who rents a house owned by Hill.
When Warren lands a job as a legal assistant, she recruits the recuperating athlete, who lives in an adjoining apartment, to serve as a nanny to her two kids.
"In the House" may have actually increased LL Cool J's popularity as a rap artist. His "Hey Lover" single recently made the Top 5 on Billboard's pop and R&B charts.
His new single, "Doin It," just climbed to No. 20 on the pop chart. The rap ballad is his most commercially successful single in a career that has included five other Top 40 songs, including 1991's "Mama Said Knock You Out."
His previous five albums all reached platinum status--denoting sales of 1 million copies each--an achievement unmatched in the often fleeting (even by pop-music standards) world of hip-hop. His current "Mr. Smith" album also is expected to go platinum.
For the former James Todd Smith, television has been a way to bring his music even further into the mainstream.
"Wherever I go, hip-hop goes," he said. "I like acting, but I love music more. Music has done so much for me. It's allowed me to do other things."
Though LL Cool J downplays the image--his moniker stands for Ladies Love Cool James--his profile as a rap sex symbol undoubtedly has played a part in his popularity. Playgirl magazine once named him one of the 10 sexiest men in rock.
His first acting role was in the action film "The Hard Way" in 1991. That was followed by an appearance in Barry Levinson's oddball comedy "Toys" the following year.
When producers Quincy Jones and Winifred Hervey approached him about doing "In the House," LL Cool J insisted that the Marion Hill character not be a stereotypical dumb jock. He wanted to play a strong but spiritual and emotionally broad figure.
"In a way, [Marion] is like me in that he's feeling, loves kids and is health-conscious," he said. "But he's different than me in that I wouldn't sit around the house just waiting to heal. I would go out and make something else happen."
Reflecting this proactive mind-set, his career has been marked by a healthy sense of artistic diversity and challenge. Over the years he's deftly combined harder-edged such rap tunes as "I'm Bad" with such sexy ballads as "I Need Love."
In 1991 he became the first rap act, along with De La Soul and M.C. Lyte, to perform acoustic on "MTV Unplugged." He also rapped for President Clinton during his inaugural celebration in 1992.
A husband and a father of three young children, LL Cool J believes he has grown in other ways too. In the late '80s, he found himself embroiled in a number of chest-thumping feuds with other rap artists including Kool Moe Dee. In addition, he was criticized for the cover of his 1989 album, "Walk Like a Panther," which depicted him living the high life with champagne and three leggy women.
Now, he says, he feels much more comfortable with himself and his rap peers.