Remembering the classic that invented the hip-hop comeback album,
Mama Said Knock You Out invented the hip-hop comeback album, everyone knows that.
I mean the towering title stunner addresses it head-on: “Don’t call it a comeback, I’ve been here for years.” LL Cool J hadn’t been anywhere for years; he was, like, 20. But in a pre-internet hip-hop world, the pace was set by its first superstar at 14 years old, and after inventing the hip-hop ballad (“I Need Love”) among other things, he was supposed to be over, and a portion of his audience assumed hip-hop might be soon too. Along with possibly AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted, Mama Said Knock You Out was the first hip-hop album to successfully give a rap career a second act. It helps that it was stronger than the first one; obnoxiously charming singles like “I’m Bad” and “Big Ole Butt” and “I Need a Beat” made a larger-than-life personality and rewarded it with money and fame, but LL Cool J’s fourth album made him a thoughtful and well-rounded musician.
For one thing — though many of the best songs (“Eat Em Up L Chill,” the title tune) are — it wasn’t all boasts. “Around the Way Girl” and “6 Minutes of Pleasure” had a tenderness that wasn’t self-centered like “I Need Love” for maximum commercial appeal or else Drake may have been invented sooner. “Milky Cereal” predated Lil Wayne’s horny wordplay by arranging dozens of household breakfast cereal names into a tale with Slick Rick’s eye. To anyone who thinks he can’t be self-deprecating, he offers “I rode the back of the bus but my grip kept on slipping” on “Cheesy Rat Blues,” which also introduced the world to the phrase “run the jewels,” if that rings a bell. And on the album’s very peak, a pretty shallow and full-of-himself stud finds his political consciousness as he endures an “Illegal Search” that preceded Jay-Z’s “99 Problems” indirectly (and Kanye’s “Cold” directly). With its gospel-flavored “keep on searchin’” refrain and organ hook, LL Cool J’s greatest deep cut bounced with a densely sampled soulfulness in fuller melodic contrast to the rest of the often starkly satisfying album.
VIDEO: LL Cool J “Mama Said Knock You Out”
Which is not to say that a full-of-himself stud isn’t at his best beating his chest on the savagely delivered “Mama Said Knock You Out” biting down every syllable hard and reaffirming his status on top of his world. The whole thing is a bit sparse for a smash, it’s no Thriller or Can’t Slow Down, it doesn’t sound terribly expensive, and other than star producer Marley Marl, it’s not a guest-loaded affair. But this was the beginning of the rap blockbuster, a hard-pop album that tried to please everyone and intimidate them at the same time by throwing down a gauntlet for the competition. Canibus would permanently deflate LL’s rep as a not-terribly-serious rapper with questionable longevity due to the fact “99% of his fans wear high heels” but his masterpiece hardly feels like a batch of compromises for any one demographic. Mama Said Knock You Out nods at God-fearers, boombox-carriers, battle-rap diehards, and yes, women, whom he loved every bit in return.
LL Cool J wasn’t the first rapper who wanted to be a pop star, but he was the first titan of the genre to comport himself like one.