LL Cool J’s fourth studio album, Mama Said Knock You Out, was not only a strong pivot from his earlier, more sentimental work, but also a serious turning point for his career. As gangster rap rose to prominence in the late 1980s, fans of the genre began to question the Queens icon’s ability to endure the changing tide with a sound that many of his critics deemed too poppy. So in the video for his booming 1990 title track, LL Cool J got in a boxing ring and fought for his continued relevance with each bar landing like a critical blow to his doubters. Is the idea of him turning to violence in order to make his case ideal in the real world? Absolutely not. But within the safe confines of his music, the imagery of him putting up his dukes and defending his eventual legacy made him and his range impossible to ignore.
Thematically, fighting in music can represent a few things: It can signal survival, protest, triumph, heartache, and anger in a mighty way. For the listener, it provides a window of catharsis, a private moment where they can entertain the idea of shedding the cloak of propriety just once, clench their fists, and swing at the obstacles that stand between them and peace. Nobody should actually follow through with the events laid out in these 22 songs, but if they inspire certain punchy feelings, we totally get it.