Don't be fooled by the tough-guy togs and tattoos or the 25 million albums he sold to become the most successful rap artist in history. Out of the limelight, LL Cool J is just a regular guy who loves his grandma. His latest album, 10, is profanity-free because of a request she made before dying last November. And his next single, "Big Mama," celebrates her life in rhyme. "My grandmother was the person that I leaned on," says the 35-year-old father of four. "I made a record that she could listen to. Love is something everyone can relate to. It's just true. It's real. It doesn't die."

Big star, big heart: It's no wonder that LL Cool J stands for Ladies Love Cool James. And let's not forget the big muscles too. In the new romantic comedy Deliver Us from Eva, in which he portrays a womanizer who meets his match in the shrewish Eva (Gabrielle Union), the entertainer born James Todd Smith gets to flex his pecs in his first leading-man role. At test screenings "we got the oohs and aahs from the ladies in the scene at the pool with his shirt off," says director Gary Hardwick. "His audience has been waiting for this for a long time."

Well, he's been busy. Capping off a 20-year career that includes 10 albums, three Grammy Awards and 20 films, LL is savoring a hit album with two No. 1 songs. In addition to Eva, he'll have two other movies out this year: Mindhunters, a thriller costarring Val Kilmer due in August, and the action film S.W.A.T., which he's now shooting in L.A. with Samuel L. Jackson. "I love and enjoy doing both," says LL. It's just a matter of compartmentalizing. "When you're [on the set] you call him Todd," notes Union. "When he's doing music, you call him LL."

He had already adopted that moniker when, at 15, he walked into the Manhattan office of Russell Simmons, cofounder of the rap label Def Jam, with a self-made record called "I Need a Beat." "It was revolutionary," says Simmons. "He was a great poet who had the most obvious connection to the street." The only child of Ondrea Smith, 57, a pharmacist, and James Nunya, 56, an entrepreneur, LL was 4 when his parents divorced. Raised by his mother in Queens and her parents on Long Island, he says, "I was taught to love, believe in yourself, achieve your goals." When he dropped out after ninth grade to pursue a musical career, he left home, he says, and "spent days trying to figure out what to do."

Soaring sales of "Beat" solved the rent issue—and sent him and his $80,000 Porsche screeching into life's fast lane. He bought half a dozen cars and nearly as many houses (and one of each for his mother) and indulged in an obsession with sex and pornography. As he admitted in his 1997 autobiography I Make My Own Rules, "There was a new world full of groupies and I was the Christopher Columbus of hip-hop." But time—and, he says, "faith in God"—put him on a different path. In 1995 he wed Simone, the mother of his son Najee, now 13, and daughter Italia, 12. (Since then they've had Samaria, 7, and Nina, 2.) Not surprisingly, wild parties—or any parties—are mostly memories now. "Oh, please," says Simone, 32, an accessories designer. "We get out once in a blue moon."

Staying in at his seven-bedroom Tudor-style home in suburban New York suits LL just fine. He reads and plays the stock market. "I'm constantly trying to educate myself," he says. And sometimes he gets the surreal treat of watching his kids watch him on TV. "They like the movies. They watch the videos," he says. "It's cool." Still, being a dad hasn't turned him into a total softie—he hits the gym almost daily. "I want to get in better shape so I can play ball with my kids," says LL. "I want to dunk on 'em when I'm 50."

Karen S. Schneider
Mark Dagostino in New York City

  • Contributors:
  • Mark Dagostino.