ARTS / Testosterone rapper on a roll: Show People 76. LL Cool J

TWENTY-FIVE is rather young to be an elder statesman, but that doesn't seem to be a problem for LL Cool J. Few rap artists get to make five albums. And few if any of those are as good as LL's 14 Shots to the Dome. The last shot, 'Crossroads', an epic apocalyptic vision with full orchestra, is the killer blow, but at least three others are right up with his best. 'Funkadelic Relic' is an engagingly honest assessment of his career so far, 'All we got Left is the Beat' is an astute analysis of rap's place in society, and 'Pink Cookies in a Plastic Bag, Getting Crushed by Buildings' is every rapper's dream - an imaginative sex metaphor.

For one who had his first hit at 16, LL Cool J has kept a very level head. Born James Todd Smith (the snappy acronym, short for Ladies Love Cool James, would come later), he grew up in the New York borough of Queens. A benevolent grandfather tried to divert him from his destiny by giving him a guitar - 'I love him,' says LL, burly and amiable as ever in his hotel suite, 'but I broke it' - but made good with some DJ equipment. At 12, LL was making up rhymes andhe soon realised his future lay with a microphone.

His 1986 debut album Radio was the first to come out on the Def Jam label, which was about to play a vital role in rap's leap from a minority music to a major cultural force in America. Listening to it for the first time in England, the excitement of a new sound cut clean through the crackle on even the scuzziest sound system. The stripped-down beauty of 'Rock the Bells' was perfectly complemented by Cool J's precocious verbosity, and a big self-deprecating sense of fun was never far beneath the bragging: 'You dance like a fat old lady, not saying that fat old ladies ain't nice.'

By the time of his third LP, Walking With A Panther, LL Cool J was well on the way to fulfilling his aim of being the 'first black middle-American sex symbol'. Musically, he claims to have lost the plot slightly around this time. Album sleeve- notes proclaimed: 'I want to do my part in breaking stereotypes placed on young black men in America' but his means (to 'reach all materialistic goals and be young, black and legal') made more impact than his end, and when De La Soul hit, LL Cool J was just the type of gold- chain-wearing old-school individual that they were reacting against.

The shifting tides of hip-hop fashion have never managed to erode LL's credibility, which is probably why he feels no compulsion to put on the menacing front that is the bane of many an interviewer of hip-hop stars. 'I don't need to try to initimidate people,' he smiles, 'I don't have to sit here and tell you a story about how many guns I've bought, because we know that I make a living and anybody can buy a gun - money talks and BS walks - we know that, it doesn't mean anything.' You have to respect an outspoken rapper who supplies his own asterisks, and LL Cool J's disrespect for macho conventions is one of his most appealing features. Ice-T is the proud owner of a pit-bull called Felony. LL Cool J's dog is a dachshund. Her name is Penny.

The author of 'Big Ole Butt' can never be called a new man, but LL can be tender as well as tough. The testosterone bluster of 'How I'm Comin', the new album's first single, is a disappointment. 'The essence of my music is verbal boxing,' he insists, 'so you're going to hear that combat and you're going to hear rough things, and I'm not going to sway from that. But it's the music that matters - not the politics or some controversy put there to distract you from the fact that the record is garbage.

'I think the only way to get yourself remembered is through the music, because the controversy is going to blow over. There were many rumours in King Arthur's time . . . are we hearing them now? It's all about what they left; that golden chalice or that sceptre someone found - the artefacts. Now that means the CD. Twenty years from now people are going to put that CD in the player and they're going to know the difference between what's really good and what was successful for other reasons.'

LL Cool J has taken a similarly craftsmanlike approach to his developing film career, showing a determination to avoid the roles traditionally earmarked for career-minded rappers. So far there's been a party cameo in the horrendous Less Than Zero, an extremely likeable undercover cop in The Hard Way and Michael Gambon's son in the pretty disastrous Toys, about which LL is diplomatic: 'The film is what it is, but Robin Williams is a brilliant guy and I have a lot of respect both for him and Barry Levinson.' Would he like a bigger role next time? 'I would, but I'm not a movie star. Maybe one day I could be - I hope so. Right now I don't know if I have enough strength to carry a whole film. I'd rather just stay in the background, learning.' So that's the secret of his success: modesty.

'14 Shots to the Dome' is out now (Def Jam, LP/CD/tape). LL Cool J tours clubs in June, larger venues in the autumn.