LL Cool J Encourages Us to Not Worship Lyrical Complexity: “That’s a Rule I’ve Always Bucked”

LL Cool J was one hip-hop’s first solo superstars, so it is no surprise that he was the first rap artist to receive Kennedy Center Honors this month for his lifetime contributions to American arts and culture. On the heels this lifetime achievement, he spoke with Independent’s Chris Richards about his long-standing career and understanding the craft.

“I don’t know if people understand how much intellectual prowess it takes to write something that’s simple,” he explains to Richards. “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.” He later adds, “I don’t worship complexity, man.”

For several years now, the debate over lyrical rap versus mumble rap has been a hot-button topic, with fans and artists arguing over the merits each approach, and if “mumble rap” can even live under the hip-hop umbrella. Here, LL's comments on complexity bring some nuance to the conversation as he insists that artists don’t need to spit double-time lyrical miracles in order to have substance in their music.

21 Savage’s deadpan delivery and blunt lyrics do not make his life nor his music any less harrowing, much like a young artist's ability to rap at the speed light doesn’t make them a shoe-in for Best New Artist. As much as hip-hop is predicated on competition, valuing one means execution over another will only stunt the genre’s evolution and discourage new rappers.

Delivery might be what gives a rap song its body, but there has to be some level appreciation and self-awareness from fans and tastemakers. Do you dislike a particular song because you don't like an MC's delivery or do you really believe the track lacks substance entirely? Can you dislike a style like drill but still see the incredible value an artist like G Herbo brings to the table as a rapper?

Also, will we ever be more open-minded? Maybe I’m asking too much.