Man On Fire

Don’t Call It A Comeback! Lessons From LL Cool J on Disrupting Yourself

Just a few years after LL Cool J dropped his first single, rival rappers were already attacking him in diss tracks. Not sure how to respond, LL talked with his grandmother. Her advice: “Oh baby, knock them out!”

That’s just what he did with the song “Mama Said Knock You Out” in 1990. The album of the same name established him as a rap superstar, netted him a Grammy and an MTV Unplugged performance, and silenced his critics.

He’s been knocking them out and knocking down barriers ever since. 

Three decades later, he’s still, as he would say, “a phenomenon.” He’s won two Grammys (and hosted the show five times) and brought home multiple MTV VMAs, NAACP Image Awards, and Soul Train Image Awards. He hosts The Influence of Hip-Hop on SiriusXM. He’s the first rapper to be honored by the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts. And he has starred on NCIS Los Angeles for more than a decade.

As the Vulture described, “With massive hits across multiple decades, no one has been as good—or at least as relevant—over as long of a period.”

How does LL Cool J stay on top of his performing game? Here are the top tips from the G.O.A.T. himself.

Be True to Yourself and Those Around You

LL Cool J’s tastes and style have evolved since he released the single “I Need a Beat” way back in 1984. But his loyalty to himself and the people and community who made him who he is has been a constant. 

Or as he said, “Keeping it real ain’t about carrying a gun or smoking blunts. It’s about being true to yourself and those around you.”

He’s fiercely loyal to his artistry and his personal brand. As the Washington Post described it, “That sense of freedom has always been central to his music making, and he says that whenever he sits down to work out a rhyme, the only person he’s ever trying to impress is himself.”

His commitment to family is next level. After he began making the big bucks as a rap artist, he didn’t buy himself a fancy car. He bought his mom a house. (yes, he did eventually buy a sweet ride.)

He credits much of his success to his grandmother (remember her?) and grandfather. “They taught me the importance of hard work, finishing what you begin, not being late, believing in yourself, and being spiritually grounded,” he told the Orlando Sentinel.

Then there’s his wife, Simone. When she suggested that his music videos had become too suggestive for a married man, he changed the way he represented women in his songs and videos and started rapping to women instead of about them. 

Later, when Simone was diagnosed with cancer (she’s now in remission), he put everything into supporting her through the disease. 

Takeaway: Don’t surround yourself with yes-men and yes-women who will tell you what you want to hear. Keep it real, and remain loyal to those who are loyal to you as a person, not as a paycheck.

Establish concrete goals, but don’t accept limits

LL Cool J is a believer in concrete goals to motivate and keep your head from residing permanently in the clouds. As he told the Orlando Sentinel, “Goals are guideposts. You may not achieve them, but you can get close. If you don’t write down what you want to accomplish, you’re like a cork tossed into a high tide. Dreams don’t have deadlines, and you can’t get frustrated. Winston Churchill said that success is being able to go from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm. … I tell my kids this all the time.”

Yet he also works to avoid limitations, artistically or otherwise. One of the reasons that he continued to act was to avoid limiting his career to simply a (very successful) rap artist. 

Regarding his work in acting, he explained, “Hip-hop can be limiting, and I refuse to accept limits. … That’s why I chose to do acting. I didn’t want to be handcuffed to one thing, and now I have options.”

He has even launched a clothing line and co-founded Beat Cancer Like a Boss (which supports the American Cancer Society) with his wife.

Takeaway: Don’t limit your possibilities, even if you succeed in one area. The world is always changing; be positioned to pivot.

Don’t Worship Complexity. Instead, Follow Your Imagination

“I don’t know if people understand how much intellectual prowess it takes to write something that’s simple,” he said in an interview. “Let me give you an example. . . . Tolstoy is far more complex than the Lord’s Prayer. But which one was harder to write? In rap, there’s this tendency to worship complexity, and that’s a rule I’ve always bucked. … I do think you can be successful if you’re willing to put yourself in a position where you might look foolish.”

Following his imagination and striving for emotional resonance and deep symbolism hasn’t always led him to commercial or critical success—exhibit A: his widely panned “Accidental Racist” duet with country artist Brad Paisley. But in the long run he has no regrets because he has stayed authentic. 

“I think the worst part of life would be not going after your dreams and living a life of quiet desperation,” he told Rolling Stone.

Takeaway: Imagination is important, but don’t get stuck searching for a complex answer when a simple one is better. What matters most is your willingness to put yourself out there and risk looking foolish—and to have confidence that if you fail, you can get back up and try a new iteration.

Three decades after knocking out his critics, LL Cool J continues to attract fans and followers. Eminem, Missy Elliott, Pharrel Williams, Drake, and countless other artists owe a debt of gratitude to an artist who is always willing to disrupt himself and his art.

You got to believe in yourself and speak it into existence,” he says. That’s a beat that can hook us all.