It’s the week of Fourth of July. And while we appreciate you being here, we really hope it’s from some stretch of sand or some body of water relaxing enough that your problems can be put on the same kind of ice as the booze in the cooler next to you. If not, throw on your shades anyway, and join us for our weeklong package, “Life’s a Beach,” a celebration of all things sand, sun and summer. Of course, if you’re already on vacation, you’re welcome, too — just be sure to reapply another layer of sunscreen, as these pieces burn bright. Read all of them here.
James Todd Smith was a hungry young rapper when, at age 17, he released his first album, Radio, loudly declaring, “My story is rough / My neighborhood is tough / But I still sport gold / And I’m out to crush.” Better known as LL Cool J, he soon became one of hip-hop’s first big stars, although that never stopped him from being fatally corny. When he was starting out, rap was too insecure to show its sensitive side, but Cool J had no fear, delivering romantic ballads like “I Need Love.” Sure, his hip-hop moniker might have been kinda dorky, standing for “Ladies Love Cool James,” and rap purists dissed him, but he didn’t care. “It ended up being a major hit,” Cool J said later of “I Need Love,” “but a vast majority of hip-hop artists hated it and thought it was soft and wrong — I broke the rules somehow. But that’s what makes it exciting.”
So if there was one rapper guaranteed to make the dopiest soundtrack song connected to the dopiest action-thriller involving super-smart killer sharks, it would be him. Which brings to mind a question: When’s the last time you listened to “Deepest Bluest (Shark’s Fin)”? I mean, really listened to it?
You can’t find the track on Spotify. If you try to buy it on iTunes, you have to get the whole soundtrack album. There’s only a low-res version of the video on YouTube. But “Deepest Bluest,” which plays over the end credits of Deep Blue Sea, will never go away as long as it lives in the hearts and minds of those who saw the movie in the summer of 1999. Cool J has a lot to apologize for in his career — his bad Grammy hosting gigs, NCIS: Los Angeles — but “Deepest Bluest” ranks high on the list. Except I don’t think he feels bad about it at all, which I kinda respect.
The song (and the accompanying film) came about during a strange time in the entertainment industry. Released a couple years after Anaconda, and anticipating the eventual unveiling of Snakes on a Plane and the Sharknado series, Deep Blue Sea was part of the so-bad-it’s-good horror subgenre involving unruly animals menacing unsuspecting humans. It was directed by Renny Harlin, who had seemed like a promising action filmmaker thanks to Die Hard 2 and Cliffhanger. (Right, he also did the Andrew Dice Clay vehicle The Adventures of Ford Fairlane.) But after the commercial and critical 1995 bomb Cutthroat Island, his career took a hit. Enter Deep Blue Sea, which featured a collection of mid-level stars — Saffron Burrows, Thomas Jane, Michael Rapaport, a pre-Thor Stellan Skarsgård — working in an underwater research facility trying to breed a superior strain of shark that contains a protein that could cure Alzheimer’s. Big surprise, things go wrong.
Contrary to its reputation, Deep Blue Sea actually got some good reviews, with certain critics appreciating its popcorn-flick silliness. (Newsweek’s David Ansen called it “one terrific junk movie.”) Still, in the ensuing years, the film has been reduced to its most ridiculous, meme-able moments — Samuel L. Jackson’s monologue is so long and then he gets eaten by a shark! — and become another piece of pop-culture ephemera. One of those moments that’s most endured is LL Cool J’s performance of “Deepest Bluest,” a song whose music video features the rapper turning into a shark.
The late 1990s were a period of transition for Cool J. He was still making albums — 1995’s Mr. Smith sported three Top 10 singles — but the rapper was suddenly known as much for his acting, starring in the sitcom In the House and appearing in movies like Halloween H20: 20 Years Later and Any Given Sunday. “I have to be able to do different things,” he once said about jumping from music to acting. “I have the talent, I have the ability — with humility — but if I have the talent and the ability to do something, I’m going after my dreams, period. I’m not going to be doing one thing just to be doing it.”
In Deep Blue Sea, he plays Preacher, who’s a cook. Mostly, though, he’s the character who cracks wise while everybody worries about being eaten by super-sharks. The good news is that Preacher survives to the end of the movie, an accomplishment not shared by many of his cohorts. And shortly after his character’s final line — “Take me back to the ghetto” — we roll credits and, boom, here comes “Deepest Bluest.”
Written by Cool J and producers Timothy Hom and Ralph Roundtree — and biting the melody of Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s “You’re All I Need to Get By” — “Deepest Bluest” emerged at a moment when Hollywood was chasing the latest trend: having rapper-actors come up with the theme song to their movies. The king of this, of course, was Will Smith, who had a huge hit with 1997’s “Men in Black.” The same summer as Deep Blue Sea, Smith returned with Wild Wild West, whose theme song was a lot more popular than the movie it was advertising. Like Smith’s smashes, “Deepest Bluest” drew from the playbook of “On Our Own,” the forgotten 1989 theme to Ghostbusters II, in which Bobby Brown, among other things, rapped the plot of the film. In Cool J’s song, he assumes the point of view of a shark — albeit one whose DNA got combined with the rapper’s.
I could quote so many lyrics from this wonderfully idiotic song, but let’s just stick with the opening:
Hungry jaws of death
Y’all don’t cross my depths
I’ll pause your breaths
I cause you to sink down 40,000 leagues
Bleeding to death with no arms and short sleeves
My world’s deep blue
Killers gotta eat too
Looking for human flesh to rip my teeth through
It goes on from there, laying out the mindset of this ferocious eating machine. Essentially, “Deepest Bluest” is the “Mama Said Knock You Out” of shark anthems. And like any good actor, Cool J went deep into character while making the music video, wearing dark contacts to simulate a shark’s steely eyes. But emblematic of an era when studios would pay a lot for gaudy videos, the clip also featured a full string section and Busby Berkeley-esque women doing choreographed numbers in the water — and that’s not even mentioning the scantily-clad women on land gyrating away. Who knew being a shark was so goddamn epic?
The more seriously Cool J takes everything, the funnier “Deepest Bluest” becomes. Everybody likes to clown him for the line “My hat is like a shark’s fin,” but that was actually the second time he’d used that lyric, ripping off his 1987 track “I’m Bad.” (“MCs can’t win / I make ‘em rust like tin / They call me Jaws / My hat is like a shark’s fin.”) So many of the track’s adrenalized lines are risible, but my favorite might be “The killer’s cold-blooded / His name’s LL / You don’t really want it / I ate your ancestors / The ocean is haunted” because it sounds like he’s saying “The ocean is horny,” which is an incredible thing to imagine.
Alas, though, this isn’t lover-man LL rapping on “Deepest Bluest,” going so hard that he seems to be trying to outdo Puff Daddy’s ludicrously bombastic hard-rock/hip-hop mashup “Come With Me” from the previous year’s Godzilla. Even when Cool J inexplicably raps “I’m talking death at a moment’s notice / You wasn’t focused / Me and my crew strike / Like some underwater locusts” — representing the first time that any artist of any discipline drew a connection between the aquatic predator and the Biblical plague — his commitment to this silly premise is incredibly touching. With his barking, motor-mouthed rhyming and that familiar Gaye/Terrell melody — which had been previously sampled for Method Man and Mary J. Blige’s 1995 hit “I’ll Be There for You/You’re All I Need to Get By” — “Deepest Bluest” was embarrassingly corny but also weirdly riveting. LL Cool J really sold the hell out of his first-person shark manifesto. “Killer for centuries / The Gotti of the deep,” he brags. “In the next millennium / I’m still gonna creep.”
“Deepest Bluest” wasn’t actually the only song he recorded for the Deep Blue Sea soundtrack, also contributing the more laidback “Say What.” (He didn’t pretend to be a shark in that one.) Shockingly, both failed to make the charts, and as the movie’s reputation as a camp classic began to grow, Cool J seemed to distance himself from his grandiose musical opus. But earlier this year, he took to social media to defend some of his past tracks, and one of them was “Deepest Bluest.” Turns out, he still likes the song — as well as his totally dumb morphing into a shark that happens at the end of the video.
Movies still occasionally feature rap songs somewhat tied to the film’s main themes — Eminem’s “Venom,” for instance — but long gone are the days that something like “Deepest Bluest (Shark’s Fin)” could terrorize the airwaves. Deep Blue Sea recalled one of the greatest of all horror movies, Jaws, reminding us of the unspeakable fear that great whites incite in our culture. For that Steven Spielberg classic, John Williams conjured up that fear through just a few simple notes, evoking sharks’ silent, menacing pursuit of their prey. The minimalism was chilling. But if Williams had to do it all over again, maybe he would have gone the LL Cool J route. Sure, the Jaws theme is amazing, but it doesn’t contain the lines “Underwater storms / Your blood is so warm / Your life vest is off / And that turns me on.”
Only Cool James could make a shark attack sexy.