Happy 30th Anniversary to LL Cool J’s second studio album Bigger and Deffer, originally released July 22, 1987.
James Todd Smith—universally known as LL Cool J— was hip-hop’s first superstar. There had been pop successes in rap before him, like Kurtis Blow, Run-DMC and Whodini, and there were also supreme lyricists among his contemporaries, like Rakim and KRS-One. But LL was a different animal altogether. He was a suave leading man in the mold of a young Denzel Washington or Brad Pitt, a photogenic star with impeccable chops.
LL first burst on to the scene with 1985’s Radio album, one of the first albums released on the legendary Def Jam Records. Influenced by rappers like T La Rock, the Queens born teenager hit the rap world hard with tracks like “I Need a Beat,” “I Can’t Live Without My Radio,” and “Rock the Bells.” He was a brash teenager who possessed the energy and creative fire to take on the world. And 30 years ago, he was ready to make a definitive musical statement, releasing his sophomore set Bigger and Deffer in 1987.
Bigger and Deffer successfully carried LL into rap superstardom, going triple platinum and becoming one of the most successful hip-hop albums to that point. It showcased a young artist who was successfully elevating his game to the next level. The album covered all its bases. It had displays of uncut verbal fire, stylistic exhibitions, light-hearted storytelling rhymes with a slight edge. It even had songs designed to appeal to women, which became an important part of LL’s sustained success.
LL presented himself as a 19-year-old who was living the dream. He was a rapper with movie-star good looks and a passion for rhyming who was able to lyrically bang with the best of them. It was an album that appealed to everyone, and did so mostly without making overtly pop tracks (with one very notable exception). He was bigger and deffer (B.A.D.), and he knew it, and he wasn’t shy about letting you know just how bad he was.
The album’s production was handled by the L.A. Posse, a Los Angeles-based production collective made up of Darryl “Big Dad” Pierce, Dwayne “Muffla” Simon, and Bobby “Bobcat” Earvin. Here they mostly used sample-based production, leaning heavily on Ultimate Beats and Breaks records. However, they also utilized drum machines to put together some of the stand-out tracks on the album.
Rap is an art form for which bragging about yourself is standard operating procedure, especially during hip-hop’s “Golden Age” of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. Still, it says something that LL became the poster child for crafting ego-inflating lyrics. Bigger and Deffer is one of the first albums that really elevated the artform of braggadocio rap, as many of the songs are centered around LL espousing his own awesomeness.
Case in point, Bigger and Deffer begins with “I’m Bad,” the album’s first single. LL tears into his competition with amazing precision and makes dozens of sharp boasts. The song is filled with great lines, such as “I got a gold nameplate that says I wish you would” and “I’m like Jaws, my hat is like a shark’s fin” and “When I retire I’ll get worshipped like an old battleship.” The beat, which samples the Rhythm Heritage’s “Theme From S.W.A.T.,” is a hyper-kinetically charged piece of work, pulsing with energy. It’s a great and fitting album opener.
The album has its fair share of lyrical exhibitions, such as “Get Down” and “.357 – Break It On Down,” each showcasing LL’s penchant for rapping both at a fast and a more deliberate pace, but always with great precision. On the warp-speed “Ahh, Let’s Get Ill,” LL exhibits his skill at using alliteration in his rhymes, as he unleashes five brief verses, all of them built around his use of the letter “L,” demonstrating the meaning of “LL”: “It goes quick Like Lightning, too exciting / Lover of Ladies, don’t allow biting / Level-headed Leader, toy boy feeder / Good Love Life and a rhyme biter beater / Looking, Learning, the one you're liking / Listen and you will Love what I'm writing.”
LL also offers some fun and slightly-risqué narratives on Bigger and Deffer. First comes, “Kanday,” LL’s dedication to his newfound woman and the freaky activities that the two of them engage in. He even memorably taunts her former boyfriend during a chance: “Last time I saw her ex-man, I had to shake homeboy’s hand / I said ‘what up,’ he said ‘what up,’ ‘I took your girl, so what up?’/ Got her walking around with a hole to fill up.” That’s just mean-spirited.
He then dedicates a song to the “Bristol Hotel,” a Queens based house of ill repute “where the meat tastes better than Burger King.” Listening to him rap over Wilson Pickett’s “Engine No. 9,” it’s apparent listening to the track that he has a hard time rapping with a straight face; even his crew cracks up while kicking the chorus.
“My Rhyme Ain’t Done” is the type of song that few artists record anymore. Over a stripped-down, fast-paced drum track, LL recounts increasingly fantastical tales and encounters, interacting with historical figures and fictional characters. He describes hanging with the British royal family, taking a trip into a deck of cards, journeying to the center of the earth, clowning around with the Honeymooners, and rapping with a cartoon band. The overt ridiculousness of the rhymes harkens back to a time when serious emcees could rap about outlandish subject matter and still be taken seriously. And besides, images of LL smoking weed with Sitting Bull or battling Snoopy on the mic are so goofy that they’re endearing.
“Go Cut Creator Go” is LL’s rock-infused tribute to his DJ, Jay Bryan “Cut Creator” Philpot. It’s another example of the type of track a rapper could never record today, if for no other reason than sample clearance issues, as the track incorporates elements of Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Good” and “Roll Over Beethoven,” as well as Bill Haley & His Comets “Rock Around the Clock.” It sort of sounds like the type of track that Run-DMC would have recorded at the time, prominently featuring heavy electric guitars and furious scratches. LL’s performance of the song on Saturday Night Live in 1987 is considered by some to be the best rap performance ever on the long-standing variety show and one of the best televised hip-hop performances of all time.
LL then directly confronts his naysayers on “The Breakthrough.” Featuring LL rapping on a drum break from the Isaac Hayes song of the same name, it’s one of the first “fuck the haters” hip-hop tracks, as he raps about his newfound success and how it has earned him new enemies. LL directs some serious verbal venom at his opponents, then offers them some harsh motivational advice: “Instead of walking like you’re limp and talking yang about me / Why don't you take your monkey-ass and get a college degree? / Or write a rhyme and ride a bike and try to live carefree? / Hope my message reaches you before you’re 73 / An old man, when people ask you what you did with your life / You’ll say ‘I hated L.L. and I carried a big knife.’”
Perhaps the best known song on Bigger and Deffer is “I Need Love,” one of the first real hip-hop ballads. The song was a huge success and one of the first rap crossover hits, but objectively speaking, it’s a fairly awful song. LL starts the track with a great opening line: “When I’m alone in my room sometimes I stare at the walls / And in the back of my mind, I hear my conscience call,” but it’s all downhill from there. LL had dipped his toe into the “rap love song” genre with Radio’s “I Can Give You More” and “I Want You,” but at least those had rougher grooves and LL’s classic delivery. “I Need Love” is overly saccharine and as soft as a caramelized onion.
“I Need Love” was incredibly influential, and not in a good way. Its success spawned dozens of imitations by often very good rappers (including LL himself), who would record similarly unlistenable rap ballads in hopes of duplicating its success. These songs were all dreadful wastes of album space and were completely disposable. If you don’t believe me, try listening to Kool G Rap & DJ Polo’s “She Love Me, She Loves Me Not” (from their 1989 debut album Road to the Riches) or Big Daddy Kane’s “The Day You’re Mine” (from his 1988 debut album Long Live the Kane) all the way through after reading this tribute. Yeah, I didn’t think so.
Bigger and Deffer does end strong with “The Do Wop,” one of LL’s most slept on and, in my opinion, best tracks. Built around a sample of the opening seconds of The Moon Glows’ “Over And Over Again,” LL kicks a marathon verse on the song, recounting a perfect day in minute detail. In between descriptions of his morning grooming habits, eating Corn Flakes and runs to White Castle, he throws in his usual explosive braggadocio as the beat breaks down, first saluting his DJ’s prowess with lines like, “With hardcore, heavyweight, b-boy blast / Connoisseur of hardcore, and Cut Creator's fast!” then later describing himself as the “Tormentor of toys and boy scout boys / And I dare any critic to call it noise.” He makes time for an afternoon romantic interlude, and lays down his game for various other beautiful women as he journeys to the venue where he’ll perform in front of a crowd of thousands. He describes his live show domination with lines like, “I rip, stomp and crush, heavy metal bands rust / Them flaky knuckleheads I crumble up like crust.” But just as he runs on stage, he wakes up from his dream. The “It was all a dream” twist remains unnecessary, but the presentation and fierce delivery, combined with the Doo Wop groove, seal the deal.
LL rode the success of Bigger and Deffer throughout the late ’80s, releasing successful singles like “Jack the Ripper” and “Going Back to Cali.” He released the much maligned Walking With a Panther in 1989. Though the album was a hit, and features some quite strong work, the general consensus was that LL was letting success go to his head and becoming out of touch with his audience. Also, after the success of “I Need Love,” he leaned too hard on the hip-hop love song cliché, churning out three truly awful rap ballads. He later famously launched a successful comeback with 1990’s Mama Said Knock You Out, and continued to enjoy success throughout the ’90s and early ’00s. But that’s a whole other story.
Hip-Hop still hasn’t produced many rappers like Bigger and Deffer era LL Cool J. There have certainly been many imitators, but not many have crafted the right formula to make music that appeals to hardcore heads and casual listeners alike. Often, when rappers try to duplicate LL’s success, it results in all swag and no substance behind their futile attempts. But LL Cool J wasn’t built on swag and attitude alone. He built his foundation upon pure lyrical skills, and his persona was merely an added side effect. Bigger and Deffer celebrates a time when emcees were cocky because they were great at what they did, and the music was better off for it.