Now On View: LL Cool J by Kehinde Wiley

Painted portrait of LL Cool J, sitting in chair in regal pose
LL Cool J / Kehinde Wiley, 2005 / Oil on canvas / LL Cool J

Rap star and actor James Todd Smith changed his name to LL Cool J (short for “Ladies Love Cool James”) at sixteen, when he released his first single, “I Need a Beat.” In the late 1980s, the success of his recordings helped make Def Jam a major label: his broad popular appeal and nine consecutive multiplatinum albums were significant in transforming rap from an underground genre to a mainstream cultural force.

Beginning in 1993, he included gangsta rap in his repertoire. He has also crossed over to acting, both in film (Toys, Halloween H20, Rollerball), and television (In the House, 30 Rock, House); currently, he is a regular in the series NCIS: Los Angeles.

Kehinde Wiley was commissioned to paint LL Cool J for the VH1 Hip Hop Honors program in September 2005. Last year, a selection of Wiley’s works was displayed at the National Portrait Gallery, as part of the exhibition “RECOGNIZE! Hip Hop and Contemporary Portraiture.” For “RECOGNIZE!” Wiley included paintings from his Hip Hop Honors body of work, depicting some of the foot soldiers of the hip hop movement. The artists chose poses from Wiley’s personal art book collection that best suited the performative and personal aspects of their character. Inspired by Ron Chernow’s biography of John D. Rockefeller, LL Cool J wanted this portrait to have a pose similar to John Singer Sargent’s painting of the philanthropist.