LL Cool J
Reviewed on this page:
Radio - Bigger And Deffer -
Walking With A Panther - Mama
Said Knock You Out - 14 Shots To The Dome
- mr. smith - Phenomenon -
G.O.A.T.: Greatest Of All Time - 10 -
The DEFinition - Todd Smith - Exit 13
LL Cool J (given name: James T. Smith) was probably the best
looking of the early/mid 80s rappers, and he's exploited his sex
appeal to the max (his stage name stands for "Ladies Love Cool
James"). But there's a lot more to LL than that; he's got an
incredible voice that moves from a powerful roar to a gentle
bedside croon - he has more emotional range than any other rapper
I've heard, when he chooses to use it. Unfortunately, most of his later albums have been recorded on auto-pilot, so tread carefully.
Rick Rubin's first hit production, and his ultra-spare style works
wonders here, leaving plenty of room for LL's enormous voice on
tracks like "Can't Live Without My Radio" and "I Need A Beat." Even
the minor tracks are clever: "That's A Lie," "You Can't Dance." "I
Want You" and "I Can Give You More" may or may not be the first
hip-hop ballads, but either way they're smooth, tender and very
Bigger And Deffer (1987)
A mixed bag, with his best boasting song ("I'm Bad" keeps the
hilarious couplets coming so fast you're usually laughing too hard
to keep up), a hit ballad ("I Need Love"), and an ode to a
neighborhood institution that cracks you up in spite of yourself
("Bristol Hotel"). Otherwise, there are some misfired experiments
("Go, Cut Creator, Go" samples Chuck Berry, changes tempo, uses
detuned heavy guitar chords and leaves you shaking your head) and
a fair amount of filler ("My Rhyme Ain't Done"). (DBW)
Walking With A Panther (1988)
Produced by LL, and like its predecessor it's uneven: the best moments are the
slow, sax-accented story of Hollywood excess "Goin' Back To Cali"
(the B-side "Jack The Ripper," which didn't make the album, is even better); "Clap Your Hands" mixes live rhythm guitar and off-the-wall samples; "It Gets No Rougher" and "Nitro" are coproduced by the Bomb Squad in their signature style; "You're My Heart" is another love song, this time with ethereal keys. But LL indulges his macho side to a distressing degree with
the mindless 2 Live Crew-style "Big
Ole Butt," "I'm That Type Of Guy," "1-900 LL Cool J" and so on, plus a silly social conscious message tune ("Change Your Ways"), and a sappy attempt to integrate sung vocals ("Two Different Worlds" featuring Cyndé Monet). (DBW)
Mama Said Knock You Out (1990)
"Don't call it a comeback," LL says on the title track (which
samples Sly and the Family Stone's "Trip To
Your Heart"), but I can't think of anything else to call it.
Produced by Marley Marl, it's a lot more varied than Panther, with the new-jack swing "Around The Way Girl," the frantic remix of "Jinglin' Baby" and the streetcorner "To Da
Break Of Dawn." And there are lots of great rhymes, like "Cheesy Rat Blues," the
tale of his sales slump ("I go to the mall/They throw my old tapes at
me"), and "Illegal Search," a shoutout to racist cops everywhere.
(Consumer warning: seeing the film Fear Of A Black Hat may render
you unable to listen to "Mama Said Knock You Out" without dissolving
in hysterics.) (DBW)
14 Shots To The Dome (1993)
A tossoff. In addition to LL's usual bag of tracks - a nice love song,
"Pink Cookies In A Plastic Bag Getting Crushed By Buildings"; nods to his roots ("Straight From Queens"); unconvincing threats ("Buckin' Em Down"); lots of high self-esteem ("Ain't No Stoppin' This")
- there are a couple of experiments (the full string section on "Crossroads") but nothing that actually comes together. Meanwhile, the backing tracks, assembled by producers Marley Marl and Quincy Jones III, are irredeemably ordinary ("Funkadelic Relic").
mr. smith (1995)
The album was more successful than anything LL had done thus far, perhaps because he was starring in a TV series,
but if anything it's even weaker than 14 Shots.
Thanks to producers Poke and Tone aka Trackmasters, the experimentation has been replaced by tune after tune that's based on one early 80s soft-soul sample, while J raps about his usual subjects: love, hip hop, and himself.
He has a couple of dirty-talk songs (guest star LeShaun outraunches him on "Doin It") that will probably of most interest to thirteen year olds, and tries to be hardcore on "I Shot Ya," but he's never been a convincing gangsta. He's at his best as a wistful, love-struck loser on "Hey Lover," which has backing vocals from Boys II Men - the lyrics are poignant and real. (DBW)
Most tracks were produced by either Poke and Tone or Puffy Combs,
and if you're guessing that means faceless hip-pop based on samples from huge hits, you win the prize ("Candy," based on New Edition's cheesy "Candy Girl").
The title track, based on the hook from Melle Mel's "White Lines," was a single, and it illustrates the dull emptiness of the project... LL just talks about how great he is, without any of the witty wordplay, emotional honesty or charisma that really did make his early records great.
But he does pull off the George Michael-sampling, choir-employing, soul-baring, tear-jerking "Father," with genuine
feeling that's strikingly absent from the rest of the album.
"4, 3, 2, 1" features Method Man, Redman, Canibus and DMX rapping over a reggae groove; it sparked a rivalry between Canibus and LL but is otherwise unnotable. LeShaun returns for another smutty duet ("Hot Hot Hot") that's far duller than "Doin' It"; various other guests - Busta Rhymes; Keith Sweat; Lost Boyz -
don't make much noise.
G.O.A.T.: Greatest Of All Time (2000)
Not a greatest hits; the title is just more braggadocio.
There's no particular coherence or theme to the collection, but the variety and occasional grit (the
unwelcome-comparison-drawing "Homicide"; Ty Fyffe's piano-based "Can't Think") lifts it comfortably above Phenomenon.
DJ Scratch produced six tracks, and while he uses Poke & Tone's "one old sample per song" approach, at least he avoids
overfamiliar tunes: the sly funk "Hello" - vocals by Amil - samples Bernard Edwards's
"Telephone"; "You And Me" - vocals by Kelly Price -
is based on Giuliano Salerni's "You'll Never Know."
The rest are from sources familiar (Rockwilder contributed yet another pornographic seduction, "Imagine That") and obscure (Self's "Farmers," which cleverly samples the Temptations' "Ungena Za Ulimwengu"; "LL Cool J" makes odd use of Screamin' Jay Hawkins' "I Put A Spell On You.").
Loads of guests including Snoop Dogg, Xzibit, and Carl Thomas (the self-righteous kissoff "This Is Us").
Meth, Redman and DMX are back for an encore, "Fuhgidabowdit," while Canibus is not only absent, he's the target of the scorching character assassination "Back Where I Belong" featuring Jah Rule.
I only count nine; he must be including the 1996 hits collection All World.
The most prominent producers are the Neptunes - five tracks, mostly in their laid-back extended-chord mode ("U Should") - and Poke & Tone, who produce three tunes which don't rely on obvious samples but still aren't very interesting ("Paradise" featuring Amerie).
But a number of lesser lights get their shots in: Zukhan Bey and Eric Nicks whipped up the raunchy, bouncy "Lollipop"; DJ S&S produced "Fa Ha," with a banal lyric but a curious, needling bass line. And the most rousing track on the disc is "Throw Ya L's Up," produced by Ron "Amen-Ra" Lawrence.
Dru Hill add vocals to the touching "Big Mama" (which samples the Spinners' "Sadie).
Also on the guest list: K-Ci and Jo-Jo and Kandice Love ("Amazin'"); apparently some versions of the CD have a bonus track, "All I Have," featuring Jennifer Lopez, but I lucked out and didn't get it.
The DEFinition (2004)
His most entertaining effort in ages is also his least expansive: a minimum of guest stars and familiar sing-along choruses, no big concept, no hidden track.
Timbaland produced six of the eleven tracks (the "Move Somethin'"; the gentle love song "Can't Explain It") and he manages to avoid his usual clichés,
except for the Indian strings on "Apple Cobbler." The uncluttered backdrops - mostly built on uncomplicated keyboard hooks - set the stage for some focused rhyming from LL ("Shake It Baby"). The other producers stick to the same format (the hip hop soul single "Hush," produced by 7) and the unpretentious "let me entertain you" atmosphere even makes the duller tunes easy to overlook (the repetitious "1 In The Morning"; "Every Sip" with vocals by Candice Nelson). Pleasant as it is, though, LL often has nothing much to say ("Feel The Beat") and the record's only brush with greatness is the brash, kinetic chant "Headsprung."
Todd Smith (2006)
The theme here is romance, from various angles: In "Freeze," LL asks his woman to wait until he finishes sowing wild oats, while "Best Dress" (featuring Jamie Foxx) is an unlikely celebration of a woman's choice to wait for her man rather than get with LL. On "Down The Aisle" (featuring 112) he even confronts his ultimate fear. (There are a couple of uptempo self-celebrations, "What You Want" and "It's LL And Santana" - Juelz, not Carlos.)
The grabbag of producers - Trackmasters (the Latinized "#1 Fan"); the Neptunes; Jermaine Dupri ("Control Myself," a lame dance tune co-starring Jennifer Lopez - stick to a template of R&B loops and guest star-sung choruses: Mary J. Blige ("Favorite Flavor"), Mary Mary ("We're Gonna Make It") and Ginuwine ("Ooh Wee") are some of the biggest names. There's nothing original about the concept, and the sameness of the disc is wearing, so the disc ends up mediocre despite some fine moments ("I've Changed," with a nice Curtis Mayfield impression from Ryan Toby).
Exit 13 (2008)
An entirely different crew of producers, some old (Marley Marl on "You Better Watch Me"; DJ Scratch) but mostly new (Illfonics on "Come And Play With Me"; Tricky Stewart on the mindnumbing single "Baby").
Guests range from Richie Sambora to Funkmaster Flex to 50 Cent ("Feel My Heart Beat," sampling the Taana Gardner hit), and topics for discussion include politics ("Mr. President" with Wyclef Jean) and patriotism ("American Girl")
in addition to the usual romancing (the bouncy Bollywood pastiche "I Fall In Love") and assertions of excellence at his chosen profession ("Old School New School").
The music covers a lot of ground as well: there's Southern Bounce ("Get Over Here"); appropriately martial strings and choir on "It's Time For War"; Timbaland-influenced futuristic synth ("Rocking With The G.O.A.T."). In fact, at times it seems LL was devoted to checking every box at the expense of album coherence, but more often than not, the balancing act succeeds ("Dear Hip Hop").
I need a beat.