LL Cool J has a habit of chuckling as he talks. He does it on Mr. Smith, his new album, when he utters the sole line on the introductory cut, ”I can’t believe ya didn’t know.” He does it when he explains exactly what that means: ”I can’t believe ya didn’t know that it was gonna be this hot. That I was gonna come out with the most incredible album.” And he does it when he’s questioned about whether this album marks a comeback (his last hit was 1990’s ”Mama Said Knock You Out”): ”Let it be a comeback ‘cause I’m tired of arguing.”
The shiny-domed 27-year-old’s ability to wink at himself (he calls his male organ ”Shorty” on Mr. Smith) saves him from excessive bravado, but that confidence comes in handy when balancing dual careers — as self-appointed high priest of hip-hop and costar on the NBC sitcom In the House. But can a guy who plays a cookie-baking football star-turned-nanny on TV get props in the macho, preening world of rap? ”I don’t know if it’s rappers putting limitations on rappers or it’s somebody else,” says LL. But ”if you make a good album and it’s hot, you’re in there.”
In a genre short on long-term players, the Queens, N.Y.-bred LL Cool J (which stands for Ladies Love Cool James) has racked up five platinum albums in his 10 years on the scene. The new album title refers to his real name, James Todd Smith, and to his own growth. ”It’s about going to the next level,” he says. ”I’m a man now.” Indeed, the endearing guy who sometimes raps raw also reads to his kids at night (he and wife Simone have Najee, 6, Italia, 4, and Samaria, 2 months), studies religion (currently, The Jewish Book of Wisdom), and frequently drops by his grandmother’s house in Queens for chicken and dumplings. ”The simple things mean more to me now,” he says, sounding like a guy happy to be just plain Mr. Smith.