LL Cool J’s Mama Said Knock You Out vs. DMX’s It’s Dark And Hell Is Hot. Which Is Better?

One year ago, Ambrosia For Heads launched a debate among its readers seeking to answer one of Hip-Hop’s most hotly-contested questions: who is the greatest MC of all time? “Finding The GOAT MC” lasted between September 2014 and May 2015, engaging millions of readers and ultimately producing its winner, as determined by hundreds of thousands of voters. Now, “Finding The GOAT” returns to ask a new question: what is the greatest of all time Hip-Hop album?

“Finding The GOAT Album” will consider 120 albums from three individual eras (40 in each), with options for wild card and write-in candidates. You and your vote will decide which album goes forward, and which one leaves the conversation. While there will no doubt be conversation between family and friends (virtual and real), only votes cast in the voting tool below will be counted, so use the power of your click.

For Def Jam Records, both LL Cool J’s Mama Said Knock You Out and DMX’s It’s Dark And Hell Is Hot are definitive to its legacy, especially in the 1990s. The albums are two master-works in both MCs’ celebrated catalogs. Eight years apart, they each bring different sounds and styles to wax, with LL ushering in Hip-Hop’s most celebrated decade and DMX bringing it to a close. However, both LPs share a pointed approach—severing heads, and challenging Rap’s status-quo. In what may be one of the most polarizing battles of Finding The GOAT Album thus far, select which tour de force pushes its way ahead (Click one then click “vote”).


Mama Said Knock You Out by LL Cool J

By his fourth album, LL Cool J was Hip-Hop’s marathon man. The handsome kid from Farmers Boulevard was pinpointing hits on each album, and running with Rap’s torch. Before anybody on his level, LL could cross the country to chase new producers, new waves, and different sounds. Mama Said Knock You Out was a bold return to his roots, after the commercially successful Walking With A Panther. Being a cool platinum artist wasn’t good enough for Uncle L. He wanted to be the best in class. Thereby, the biggest MC from Queens teamed with its greatest producer, Marley Marl—and ordered a sonic first round TKO in Mama Said Knock You Out. This album wiped the slate against all of Cool J’s ’80s rivals, and restored James Todd Smith’s roots as a street-certified MC who could move the mainstream.

M.S.K.Y.O. is one of Rap’s first self-aware star albums—a dominating trait for the ’90s. Before Kanye West, Tupac Shakur, or Drake, LL Cool J could make an evocative album about the woes of being wealthy, a moving target, and marginalized. Songs like “Cheesy Rat Blues” addressed L’s white-hot status as an MC and sex symbol, as “Illegal Search” was a tragically prophetic portrayal of racial profiling. But this album intentionally was a pilgrimage. Hit “Around The Way Girl” pushed aside the emaciated models of “Going Back To Cali” for the kind of woman that truly understood Def Jam’s reigning star. “Farmers Boulevard” may have been the first posse cut of its kind, with a star going back to his roots for those hungry rappers. “The Boomin’ System” proved that once again LL had his finger on the pulse of the youth. Marley Marl sauteed James Brown samples, stretching the drums out, as LL Cool J threw it in 4×4, and drove over Jeep Music competitors. That chemistry between Marley and LL was arguably as good as the Juice Crew days, as “Eat Em Up L Chill” and the title track reclaimed the kind of controversial shots Marley and Mr. Magic loved taking in the ’80s. LL Cool J treated his fourth album like an NBA superstar coming back to the court in the hood, out for a true game. He succeeded in every possible way, making Mama Said Knock You Out a massive critical and commercial success. In the first 10 years of commercial Rap, LL Cool J struck a B-Boy stance and contested to be its reigning star for half of them. In 1990, nobody would go for the belt.

Album Number: 4
Released: September 14, 1990
Label: Def Jam/Columbia Records
Highest Charting Position (Top 200): #16 (certified gold, November 1990; certified platinum, January 1991; certified 2x platinum, January 1992)
Song Guests: Big Money Grip, Bomb, HIC, Bobby “Bobcat” Ervin, Flex, James Baynard, Darren Lighty, Eric Williams
Song Producers: (self), Marley Marl, Bobby “Bobcat” Ervin, Darren Lighty


It’s Dark And Hell Is Hot by DMX

At a time when mainstream Rap music was getting colorful, approachable, and making its way back to the dance-floor, Dark Man X cast an industry-wide shadow. It’s Dark And Hell Is Hot grabbed the spotlight, duct taped its mouth, and threw it in the trunk of a Yonkers hooptie. Earl Simmons, a veteran since the top of the decade, had studied greats like Tupac, Prodigy, and Scarface. Digesting, he emerged with his own approach: a series of short, direct bars, clinging to the beat, and delivering unflinching sincerity. Songs like the menacing “Get At Me Dog” introduced a bully, who seemingly stood up for not just underdogs, but all dogs. If ‘Pac defined “thug” in his life, and Jay-Z portrayed a hustler, X would be a grimy stick-up artist. His first album, before his status would be coined, found a man who rapped about twilight confrontations (“Crime Story”), successful sidewalk cat-calling (“How’s It Goin’ Down”), and battling demons in his own tortured solitude (“I Can Feel It”).

Introduced as a Def Jam Records flagship act, It’s Dark… featured a sound different than most #1 debuts. DMX favored quirky beats that seemingly few other artists would touch. Songs like the hit “Ruff Ryders Anthem” would introduce the world to Swizz Beatz’ MIDI console. Meanwhile, Earl Simmons was not above blowing his budget, or risking his cool for a grandiose Phil Collins cover. Dame Grease reworked an EPMD loop, as well as another from K-Solo, to project DMX against the early ’90s ruggedness that he clearly carried with him from his days of battling Jay on pool tables. The quadruple platinum effort won because of its authenticity. As Hip-Hop was shamefully moving away from its feuds, DMX was a reminder that listeners still fed on anger, brutality, and self-preservation. X barked and growled at a time when Roc-A-Fella, No Limit, and Bad Boy artists had polished, trademark ad-libs. In the last days of the shiny suit, a shirtless, tattoo-covered X grimaced as he rode by on a crotch-rocket. His rhymes were battle-tested, street-rooted, and his pain transcended obtaining a 4.6 Range Rover or an S600 Benz (both of which he had in videos). It’s Dark And Hell Is Hot is a work of angst, aggression, and an introduction to an MC who barked it like he bit.

Album Number: 1
Released: May 19, 1998
Label: Ruff Ryders/Def Jam Records
Highest Charting Position (Top 200): #1 (certified gold, June 1998; certified platinum, June 1998; certified 4x platinum, December 2000)
Song Guests: The LOX (Sheek Louch, Styles P, Jadakiss), Ma$e, Faith Evans, Drag-On, Big Stan, Loose, Kasino
Song Producers: Irv Gotti, Swizz Beatz, Dame Grease, Lil Rob, P.K., Young Lord

So what’s the better album? Make sure you vote above.

Related: Ambrosia For Heads’ Finding The GOAT: The Albums