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Cool J tries to balance popularity, credibility

Success in rap music creates a problem: how do you maintain street credibility for a mass-appeal artist?

At 24, rap “elder” LL Cool J (James Todd Smith, whose stage name stands for “Ladies Love Cool James”), faces that challenge with his fifth Def Jam/Columbia, “14 Shots to the Dome,” which debuts on this week’s Billboard 200 at No. 5 and holds the top slot on the R&B chart.

“LL Cool J is so mass appeal, his name is so large, that alternative outlets are sometimes reluctant (to play his music),” says Angela Thomas, VP artist relations at Columbia Records.

“They want something on the cutting edge. LL is a different kind of artist. How many rappers do the Oprah Winfrey show or a movie with Robin Williams?”

LL Cool J isn’t bothered by the dilemma. In fact, he hopes that another successful album will enable him to reach out to help the less fortunate.

“What I want to do is gain a lot more notoriety and power from this album and in turn do things to help other people that I feel need help,” he says. “That’s what motivates me.”

Camp Cool J

One such project on the Grammy-winning star’s drawing board is Camp Cool J, a retreat for inner-city youth that the New Yorker envisions in a remote, upstate location.

Following minor appearances in “The Hard Way” and “Krush Groove,” LL Cool J appeared with Robin Williams in a major support role in Barry Levinson’s film, “Toys.”

But future film roles will have to take a back seat to his music.

“Acting is something that I’ll continue to do as long as I can hold on to my integrity and come across properly, not playing stereotypical characters,” LL Cool J says.

“But right now I’m really concentrating on this album, my music, the videos and where I’m going to take the camp project. That’s the main thing.”

LL Cool J plans to spend the summer touring the U.S. and Europe. He will have a full band in tow, following the success of his MTV “Unplugged” appearance with same.

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