The Number Ones

February 8, 2003

The Number Ones: Jennifer Lopez’s “All I Have” (Feat. LL Cool J)

Stayed at #1:

4 Weeks

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.

This past summer, Jennifer Lopez married Ben Affleck. It was his second marriage and her fourth. Marc Cohn sang at the wedding. The whole spectacle was terribly romantic. These two people, together nearly 20 years ago, had lived twisty and chaotic public lives before finding their way back to each other. I’m happy for them. Most people are happy for them. But when the whole Bennifer situation was first popping off, the widespread reaction was something like: Please get these two idiots off of our televisions.

People did not like Bennifer. Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck first got together in 2002, shortly after Lopez divorced her second husband, the former backup dancer Cris Judd. Within a few months, they were engaged, and Lopez dedicated her album This Is Me… Then to Affleck. This was in a moment when the American tabloid press was operating at full steam, and magazines like Us Weekly made Lopez and Affleck into two of the protagonists of the whole tapestry of American fame. Even before they got together, both Lopez and Affleck were among the most famous people on the planet. When they became a couple, the PR shitstorm wore everyone out. The backlash was sharp and immediate, and it coincided with a moment when Lopez and Affleck, both together and apart, were making a lot of wack shit. The backlash overwhelmed both of them, and it left a deep dent in both of their careers.

Early in 2003, though, Jennifer Lopez still had juice. She’d been in a couple of romantic comedies, 2001’s The Wedding Planner and 2002’s Maid In Manhattan, that had made serious money. The dramas Angel Eyes and Enough hadn’t done so well, but people were still interested in J.Lo being flirty. That also held true with her music career. Lopez had teamed up with Ja Rule on two remixes, 2001’s “I’m Real” and 2002’s “Ain’t It Funny,” that topped the Hot 100 for a combined 11 weeks. Lopez’s dance-pop singles hadn’t done so well, but when Jennifer Lopez teamed up with a New York rapper, she could still dominate the radio. In 2003, she pulled that act off one last time.

The album This Is Me… Then, which came out around the same time that Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck first got engaged, was supposed to be an R&B album — something a little more serious and grown-up than the breezy summertime radio smashes that she’d made with Ja Rule. Lopez had a problem, though: She was not an R&B singer. She’d gotten away with impersonating one well enough on her 1999 debut album On The 6, mostly thanks to the tricky, busy beats of the era. By 2003, R&B production had become something much more warm and spare, and even with Auto-Tune all over her voice, Lopez couldn’t hang. That, combined with the growing Bennifer backlash, kept This Is Me… Then from selling as much as Lopez’s previous albums. But Lopez did squeak out one last #1 hit — not by teaming up with Ja Rule, but by getting together with another Queens rapper who’d been around for a whole lot longer.

In 2003, the 35-year-old LL Cool J had been a rap star for more than half his life. James Todd Smith was born in the Long Island town of Bay Shore. (On the day of LL’s birth, the #1 song in America was the Beatles’ “Hello, Goodbye.”) When James was four, his father, a truck driver, shot James’ mother and his grandfather during an argument. James found both of them after the shooting, and they were both covered in blood, but they survived. James went to live with his grandparents in the Queens neighborhood of St. Albans. There, he got to live a fairly comfortable middle-class life.

LL Cool J, as he called himself, was part of the first generation of kids that grew up with rap music. He’s said that he started rapping at age nine, which was in 1977 — around the time when live bootlegs of South Bronx rap routines started making their way out to boroughs like Queens. Maybe LL is exaggerating a little there, but maybe not. LL’s mother and grandfather bought him turntables and a drum machine, and when he was 14, he started using them to make demo tapes. He’d send those tapes to any record-label addresses that he could find in liner notes. One of those addresses wasn’t an office; it was Rick Rubin’s dorm room at NYU. Rubin had put that address on the first record from his newly launched indie label Def Jam Records: T La Rock and Jazzy Jay’s now-classic 1984 single “It’s Yours,” which was also the first rap record that Rubin ever produced.

Rick Rubin heard young LL Cool J’s demo tape one day after his friend, the Beastie boy Ad-Rock, dug it out of a pile of submissions. Rubin and Ad-Rock thought the tape was funny at first, but they kept listening to it. Soon enough, Rubin got together with LL and recorded “I Need A Beat.” The single came out in 1984, when LL was 16. LL’s commanding bluster worked beautifully with Rubin’s crunching, minimal production. When Rubin and Russell Simmons launched Def Jam as a proper record label, “I Need A Beat” was the first Def Jam record with a catalog number. It sold well, and that helped Def Jam get a production deal with Columbia. A year later, when the movie Krush Groove attempted to mythologize the beginning of Def Jam, LL made his screen debut in an electrifying cameo as the kid who wordlessly demands an audition.

The song that LL raps in that scene is “I Can’t Live Without My Radio,” the lead single from LL’s Rubin-produced 1985 debut album Radio. That album is a stone cold classic of that mid-’80s rap moment, when the music was still a stripped-down attack. LL toured with his contemporaries Run-DMC and the Beastie Boys, and he established a rep as the toughest kid out. The album went platinum. Two years later, LL hit even bigger with Bigger And Deffer, an album that he recorded with a cadre of Los Angeles producers. LL’s classic single “I’m Bad” became his first Hot 100 hit, peaking at #84. But LL made a much bigger impact with the simpering, soft-spoken “I Need Love,” which took advantage of LL’s heartthrob image and basically invented the love-rap ballad. “I Need Love” was a #1 R&B hit, and it peaked at #14 on the Hot 100. LL would go back to that well many, many times.

From the late ’80s to the early ’00s, LL Cool J displayed a remarkably adaptable staying power. He was never the most advanced or critically acclaimed rapper, but he just kept making hits, leaving behind a head-spinning number of gold and platinum albums. LL would swing wildly between the R&B-flavored love-raps that infuriated purists and the chest-beating tough-guy anthems that let everyone know that he was still hard. LL had entertaining feuds with rappers that were older than him, like Kool Moe Dee, and with rappers that were younger than him, like Canibus. You would want to discount him for the cheesy pop songs, but then he’d come back with the bangers that would make that impossible. Sometimes, LL did both at once, as when the 1990 single “Around The Way Girl” peaked at #9, becoming his first top-10 pop hit. (It’s a 7.)

In the ’90s, LL Cool J made some monster singles like “Mama Said Knock You Out” and the posse cuts “I Shot Ya” and “4, 3, 2, 1.” But LL’s biggest hits were the frothy crossover tracks that he recorded with R&B singers. Two of those songs became LL’s highest-charting singles: the 1995 Boyz II Men collab “Hey Lover” and the 1996 Total collab “Loungin’,” both of which peaked at #3. (“Hey Lover” is a 4, and “Loungin'” is a 6.) LL also launched a genuine acting career that started, I guess, with that Krush Groove cameo. In the late ’90s, LL was the lead on In The House, a sitcom that jumped from network to network but still managed to last four seasons. He also showed up in a lot of B-movies, including a few that I really like, like Deep Blue Sea and Halloween H20. That Deep Blue Sea role also allowed LL to make one of the silliest music videos in history.

When LL Cool J got the call to work with Jennifer Lopez, the man was still very commercially relevant. When I saw that LL’s 2000 album was called G.O.A.T. and that the title stood for “Greatest Of All Time,” I thought the title was dumb and embarrassing. Shows what I know. A couple of decades later, the term “GOAT” is just part of the lexicon. That album went gold, and the Neptunes-produced single “Luv U Better” made it to #4. (It’s a 5.)

Jennifer Lopez didn’t include too many songs with rappers on her This Is Me… Then album, though she definitely still tried to ride the wave that her big Murder Inc. remixes had created. The album’s lead single “Jenny From The Block” tried to assert that Jennifer Lopez, however glamorous she might’ve been, was still just a regular person; it pretty much just repeated the message of “I’m Real.” The song used the same sample as the Beatnuts’ 1999 goon-rap masterpiece “Watch Out Now,” and it featured the Lox’s Jadakiss and Styles P. Ben Affleck was all over the video, and he later admitted that he regretted being all over the video. (“Jenny From The Block” peaked at #3. It’s a 7. “Watch Out Now” peaked at #84.)

“All I Have,” which came out after “Jenny From The Block,” was the last song added to This Is Me… Then. Label bosses Tommy Mottola and Greg McPherson told Jennifer Lopez’s regular collaborator Cory Rooney that the LP needed one more single, and they had one in mind. A promo person had pitched McPherson on the idea of covering “Very Special,” a 1981 R&B hit for the singer Debra Laws. (“Very Special” peaked at #90 on the Hot 100, and it’s Laws’ only single that reached the big chart.) Instead of putting together a cover, though, McPherson got together with the DJ and producer Ron G, and they made a beat that sampled “Very Special.” Later on, Debra Laws tried to sue Sony over that sample, but a judge threw the lawsuit out, ruling that “Very Special” had been a work made for hire and that Laws didn’t have the rights to deny its use, since Sony had cleared the sample with Laws’ label.

Dave McPherson and Ron G sped Debra Laws’ voice up, turning it into a helium chirp. That was the thing to do back then. In the early ’00s, Jay-Z had taken to rapping over chipmunk-soul beats from Roc-A-Fella Records in-house producers Just Blaze and Kanye West, and that style briefly became hugely popular. Lots of other producers tried it, but none of them could do it as well as Just and Kanye. (Kanye will appear in this column soon enough. That’ll be fun.) “All I Have,” with its dings and windchimes, is a pretty limp approximation.

Dave McPherson called in the Baltimore-born songwriter Makeba Riddick, who’d signed to Bad Boy as a writer. Riddick and her songwriting partner Curtis Richardson wrote to the beat that McPherson and Ron G made, telling the story of a couple drifting apart. (Riddick’s work will appear in this column again.) The song was originally supposed to be called “I’m Good,” but that was too close to “I’m Real,” so it became “All I Have” instead. Cory Rooney got LL Cool J, his neighbor, to appear on the track, and Jennifer Lopez only heard it when everyone else had agreed on the song. She and LL still got songwriting credits along with Riddick, Richardson, Ron G, and “Very Special” writers Lisa Peters and William Jeffrey.

On “All I Have,” Jennifer Lopez’s narrator is sick and tired of LL Cool J’s bullshit, and she tells him that it’s over. He tries to argue with her, to win her back. She mostly talks in the most basic version of circa-’02 rap vernacular: “Well, I’m bouncing, and I’m out, son/ I gotta leave you alone/ ‘Cause I’m good, holding down my spot/ And I’m good reppin’ the girls on the block.” LL admits that he’s been running around and taking her for granted, but he says that what they have is too good to throw away. He also attempts to get laid: “That’s the way you used to giggle right before I put it down/ It’s better when you angry/ Come here, I’ll prove it now.”

I have to tell you: This whole thing just does not work for me. The song’s melodic structure is sound, and I like the way that Debra Laws sample bubbles up, but Jennifer Lopez’s voice sounds thin and sometimes actively irritating. (Makeba Riddick sings backup, but that’s not enough to save that vocal.) LL Cool J is in full lip-licker loverman mode, rapping in his inside voice and generating absolutely no heat with J.Lo. LL’s seduction attempts are just obnoxious: “I’m like your homie/ Instead of beefin’, come hold me/ I promise I’m not a phony/ Don’t bounce, baby, console me.” And the central back-and-forth on the hook always bugged me. Lopez sings, “All my pride is all I have,” and LL answers, “Pride is what you had, baby girl, I’m what you have.” So: You can’t have any pride if you’re in a relationship with LL Cool J? That seems bad.

From where I’m sitting, “All My Pride” only made it to #1 on the fumes of the whole J.Lo/Murder Inc. moment. In the years after “All I Have,” neither Lopez nor LL has made it back to #1. This Is Me… Then was already double platinum before “All I Have” reached #1, and the album didn’t rack up any more certifications after that. Later that year, Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck starred in Gigli, a gigantic bomb that almost immediately gained a rep as one of the worst movies ever made. Jennifer Lopez had entered her dark fucking era.

Lopez and Affleck broke up in 2004, and Lopez went on to make a long string of movies that nobody liked. Some of her romantic comedies made decent money, but everything else went nowhere for years. Her records weren’t hitting anymore, either. She only made the top 10 one more time in the ’00s, and she did it by getting back together with LL Cool J on his 2006 single “Control Myself,” a Jermaine Dupri-produced club track built from a “Planet Rock” sample. (“Control Myself” peaked at #4. It’s a 5.)

That song was also LL Cool J’s last top-10 hit. Since then, LL has only been on the Hot 100 twice. In 2008, LL got to #52 with “Baby,” a collaboration with The-Dream. And in 2013, LL guested on Brad Paisley’s song “Accidental Racist,” which made it to #77 — presumably entirely because of all the viral stories about the song being bad and misguided. (Brad Paisley’s highest-charting Hot 100 single, the 2011 Carrie Underwood duet “Remind Me,” peaked at #17.)

Jennifer Lopez finally pulled out of her career tailspin in 2011, when she became a judge on American Idol. The show was long past its peak at that point, but she was charming, and that was enough to remind people why they liked her. That same year, Lopez scored her first genuine chart hit in many years when she teamed up with Pitbull and Lady Gaga producer RedOne for “On The Floor,” a shameless Euro-club jam that made it to #3. (“On The Floor” is a 6. Pitbull will eventually appear in this column.)

In the past decade, Jennifer Lopez has solidified her role as a beloved pillar of the entertainment business. Her various business ventures have made her crazy rich. She’s been in more movies, and some of them have been pretty successful. She spent a few years on the detective procedural Shade Of Blue, and she really should’ve gotten nominated for an Oscar for her great work in the strippers-scamming-chumps crime-movie romp Hustlers. Lopez and Shakira, an artist who will eventually appear in this column, played a Super Bowl Halftime Show that was better than anyone expected.

Jennifer Lopez hasn’t made any huge hits since “On The Floor.” Her last time on the Hot 100 was 2018, when “Dinero,” a song with DJ Khaled and Cardi B, peaked at #80. (Khaled and Cardi will both appear in this column eventually.) But Jennifer Lopez doesn’t need to make hits anymore. She’s way richer and more famous than the people who are making hits. Lopez sang at Joe Biden’s inauguration. She married Ben Affleck. She’s 53 years old, and she’s still mind-bogglingly hot. She’s doing great.

LL Cool J is also doing great, “Accidental Racist” or no “Accidental Racist.” He hosted the Grammys for five years in a row, and all I can remember him doing is saying the word “hashtag” a lot, so I guess he didn’t embarrass himself too badly. LL and Chrissy Teigen also hosted five seasons of Lip Sync Battle. Most importantly, LL has been one of the stars of NCIS: Los Angeles since 2009. I’ve never seen a second of that show, and I have no idea who’s watching it, but it’s always pulled gigantic ratings. I can’t even imagine how much money LL is making off of that.

In 2007, I went to a big rap show under the Brooklyn Bridge. It was sponsored by Zune, so it only could’ve happened in 2007. The lineup was heavy on New York legends: The Lox, Brand Nubian, Large Professor, the reunited Crooklyn Dodgers. The night had a surprise-guest headliner, and I was a little bummed when I found out that it was LL Cool J, who hadn’t done anything that I’d liked in a long time. But then LL fucking smoked it. He was incredible. The guy’s stage presence was titanic, and his catalog was full of bangers that sounded amazing on a big soundsystem in the open air. When LL spin-kicked his mic-stand over at a climactic “Rock The Bells” moment, I lost my shit. LL Cool J deserves a #1 hit, and I’m glad he has one. I just wish it was a better song than “All I Have.”

GRADE: 3/10

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BONUS BEATS: “All I Have” has absolutely zero cultural footprint, so I had to really reach for this one. Two years ago, Ashanti, the former Jennifer Lopez collaborator and Number Ones artist, teased a snippet of a song called “All My Life” on Instagram Live. The track, a collaboration with A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie, was built on an “All I Have” sample. It never came out. Here’s that snippet:

(A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie’s highest-charting single, the 2020 Roddy Ricch/Gunna/London On Da Track collab “Numbers,” peaked at #23.)

THE 10S: “Gossip Folks,” Missy Elliott and Ludacris’ delirious, overjoyed blast of nonsense, peaked at #8 behind “All I Have.” It’s a bad mamajama goddammit, a 10.

The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal The History Of Pop Music is out 11/15 via Hachette Books. You can pre-order it here.

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