After a five-year rise to fame that began in 1985 with Radio, lots of ladies were loving cool James. Many, that is, except this pre-pubescent lady here who didn’t really get into LL Cool J like that until his Mr. Smith days and the many people who were hugely let down by the rapper’s 1989 album Walking With A Panther. Although it performed well on the charts, LL received a lot of criticism for being too soft, too mainstream and too materialistic. Had the pretty-boy emcee with the fresh delivery lost his touch? The answer came just a year later in the form of Mama Said Knock You Out.
All of the nervous energy regarding the mainstreaming of hip hop at the time, while totally warranted in retrospect, was both paranoid and motivating. Explosive, even. Take “Mama Said Knock You Out,” the single, for example. Its reception and success were restorative for his tarnished image. So much so that a song like “Around the Way Girl,” which was as much a ballad as some of the weaker, sappier songs from the previous album, didn’t overstay its welcome. There were other, better songs to be heard so heads weren’t so caught up in lip licking. “To Da Break Of Dawn,” a scathing diss track directed at a few artists (namely Ice T, MC Hammer and Kool Mo Dee) is a nice counterpoint to “The Power of God,” a pretty complex meditation on spirituality and upliftment.
Working closely with producer Marley Marl, LL Cool J really took Mama Said Knock You Out as a challenge to promote, among other things, his range. It’s what cemented his status as a hip hop icon and silenced detractors at that moment. He was never a gangsta like Ice T nor was he as bubblegum as Hammer, both extremes that would come more into play in later in the 1990s. On this album he managed to strike a balance between the two poles, a stance which was buttressed by his lyricism and collected, suave delivery.
His franchise quickly spread to film and television in the following years, almost acting like sanctuary from career-killing criticisms. Where a project like In The House ranks on the scale of selling-out is open for debate. But by that time many emcees of LL’s generation were fully crossed-over, and the same paranoia that drove him to produce some of his finest work was dissolving into the decadence of bling and the new millennium. Is Mama Said Knock You Out LL Cool J’s ‘Get Out Of Jail Free’ card? Figuratively, kinda. But that only speaks to the endearing quality of what is a verifiable classic.