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LL Cool J burns it up

Tapping an aggressive new sound, the rapper signals it's party time with 'Headsprung.'

September 02, 2004|Soren Baker | Special to The Times

Legendary rapper LL Cool J built his career on being a lyrical heavyweight with a libidinous bent. But while the Queens, N.Y., artist was on the road promoting his 2002 album, "10," he decided to shift sonic gears.

"I was [going to lots of] parties and I wanted to make music that was fun," LL Cool J said during a phone interview from New York. "I wanted to hear my music in the parties and be a part of that."

The result: "Headsprung," a thumping, party-starting song produced by Timbaland, the beat-smith best known for his club-friendly work with Missy Elliott and Jay-Z, among others. "Headsprung" is the first single from LL Cool J's 10th studio album, "The Definition," which was released Tuesday.

To be fair, several of LL Cool J's songs have been played at parties over the years, but "Headsprung" marks the first time he has made a concerted effort to create the type of high-energy cut that could become a staple in clubs, where many rap songs get their legs before gaining momentum on radio, music video outlets and eventually retail.

"It's definitely more of a harder, aggressive LL. When that song first came out, people didn't even realize it was LL," says E-Man, assistant program director-music director for L.A.'s Power 106 (KPWR-FM), where the tune is one of the 10 most-played songs. "For him to come out like this, that's just proving to a lot of people that he hasn't softened up. He's always been hard. He just knows how to deliver it when he has to."

The singer credits Timbaland with his energized sound. The innovative beat maker produced six of the 11 songs on "The Definition," giving the album a cohesive sound often absent on modern rap albums, most of which are assembled by producers of the moment who work with the artist for a song or two.

Timbaland's futuristic material provided a fresh springboard for an artist who has been releasing albums since 1985 and who is constantly looking for ways to update and enhance his sound.

"I haven't been this excited in the studio in a long time, because the music was different," LL Cool J says. "He was playing me a track, but he wasn't coming to me playing stuff for me based on what he thought people expected of me. That's so boring. He was coming to me and just playing stuff that he just thought was hot, and that's what I loved about it."

That excitement carried over to his recording sessions with other producers.

N.O. Joe, who has worked with Ice Cube and Scarface and who produced two tracks on "The Definition," says LL Cool J in the studio still seems like the anxious teen who nearly combusted with excitement in his videos nearly two decades ago.

"He still has that hunger like he was 17," N.O. Joe says. "Songs I gave him, he'd get it at midnight and call me at 3, 4 o'clock in the morning with verses. He's still just like he was back in the days as far as the hunger is concerned."

But LL Cool J has matured musically. His lyrics, which were at times imaginatively vulgar, now contain no profanity. "It's just not necessary for me," says LL, whose earlier albums "Mama Said Knock You Out" and "10" were also profanity-free. "I don't lose anything by doing it, so why do it? It doesn't give me any effect or do anything for my music."

In addition to his music, LL Cool J has established himself as an actor who has carried his own "In the House" sitcom and has starred in a number of motion pictures, including last year's big-budget action feature "S.W.A.T." He will appear in 2005 in "Edison," which also stars Morgan Freeman, Kevin Spacey and Justin Timberlake. Also awaiting release are the film noir thriller "Slow Burn" with Ray Liotta and the murder mystery "Mindhunters" with Val Kilmer and Christian Slater.

Ironically, the man who thrills his female fans by shedding his shirt to display his washboard stomach has mastered the art of remaining in the public eye by not overexposing himself.

"I only do what comes from the heart," he says. "I don't do things just to be a press hound. I like to make moves with honesty."

Soren Baker can be reached at weekend@latimes.com.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

A knockout run

LL Cool J has been a chart mainstay throughout his career, which stretches back to 1985. Following is a look at his bestselling albums.

*--* Year Album Sales 1995 "Mr. Smith" 1.8 million 1990 "Mama Said Knock You Out" 1.5 million 1996 "All World -- Greatest Hits" 1.21 million 2002 "10" 968,000 2000 "G.O.A.T." 818,000

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Note: Sales figures courtesy of Nielsen SoundScan. The company did not track album sales until 1991. By that time, LL Cool J had released four albums.

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