Artist: LL Cool J
Label: Def Jam
Rating: 5 / 10
Reviewer: A to the L
OK lets clear things up – this is NOT LL’s tenth album unless you’re willing to bend the rules a little bit. He’s cheating by including the “All World” greatest hits compilation that came out in 1996, but for a hard working guy like Mr Smith, I guess we can allow him to flout musical laws now and again.
Now on with the show… LL really needs no introduction – whether you came to Hiphop around the time he was a 17 year old upstart bragging about his “Radio”, or just fell into the scene in the last few years, Cool J has been there. The longevity gene that LL seems to have been born with has seen him evolve his image and sounds to stay relevant (whether you like his changes or not is a separate issue) while other famous names from the past have come and gone, and tried to come again. He’s turned his hand to acting, appearing in several um… “interesting” movies, and churned out a pretty bland autobiography that still managed to sell by the shovelful. And now he’s back on the mic with a new album, and another change in sound… how does the LL for the new millenium stand up to examination?
The first thing that needs to be addressed is his new musical shift. As already mentioned, LL has always had a penchant for making his music reflect what’s commercially hot. When NY sound systems in 1992 and 1993 were pumping with hard edged beats, LL tried (and ultimately failed) to emulate that with the dreary “14 Shots To The Dome”. Fast forward to ’95 and ’96 when Hot 97 was just starting to blow up and R’n’B hooks were the commercial way forward, and you’ll see LL pulling off a coup, with “Mr Smith” grabbing a major slice of radio and club play, and still (in places) satisfying those who like it a little more hardcore. Skip forward again to 2000 and witness LL releasing the perfect commercial product, with “G.O.A.T.” remaining one of his more underrated works by many heads.
This year radio and clubs have been dominated by the sound of one hot production group. The Neptunes have had the airwaves on lock with their fast paced bangers, and though their critics point to an undeniable similarity amongst a major proportion of their beats, the record buying public and the sweaty asses in the clubs don’t lie. People are loving their sound, and its unsurprising that LL has drafted them in to handle most of the work behind the boards.
Right from the start the blueprint is laid out for all to see – the ‘tunes are gonna come with the trademark staccatto beats, you’re gonna get some R’n’B-tinged hooks tossed into the mix, and LL is gonna spit over the top in his normal confidence-bordering-on-arrogance lip-licking steelo. This approach has its advantages and disadvantages – the first few tracks on the album are definitely heaters, with the lead single ‘Luv U Better’ and ‘Born To Love You’ both following the plan to the letter and guaranteeing themselves club and radio spins. However there’s no doubt that with an artist like LL, the lack of variety does become a bit of a curse. For me at least, artists like Clipse can ride Neptunes beats all day and still sound fresh because I haven’t heard them over anything else (and as they seem to be his pet project, I doubt Pharrell would let em out of the cage to record with any other producers). However with LL, more is expected, and I can’t deny that after being impressed with the opening few cuts, later tracks like ‘You Should’and ‘Amazing’ both fail to do anything for me because the Neptunes-by-numbers track approach doesn’t work for a full album for Mr Smith.
There ARE other producers on here though – everyone’s favourite production-crew-you-love-to-hate, the Trackmasters, do little to enhance their standing with heads by recycling Kenni Burke’s ‘Keep Rising To The Top’ for ‘Paradise’ where Amerie’s vocals on the hook make the song appealing, but really nothing that we haven’t heard before. Elsewhere ‘Fa Ha’ continues NY Hiphop artists favourite game-of-the-moment by building a song around a old soul vocal hook, this time managing to sound uncomfortably close to Jay-Z’s ‘Do It Again’ as it does so; Kwame (remember him?) churns out ’10 Million Stars’ layered with gospel vocals that do little to lift the boredom – even LL sounds unconvincing here; and although closing track ‘Big Mamma’ has its ideals in the right place and does at times play with the heartstrings, ultimately the inclusion of K-Ci and Jo-Jo on the chorus does little more than coat this track with an unhealthy helping of extra cheese.
So – an album of club bangers, with a few rehashed ideas and the occasional stinker (the horrific ‘Mirror Mirror’) sprinkled between. It may be enough to keep the MTV and Hot 97 crowds happy, and being honest, I think LL would say that this IS the market he’s aiming at, but this is also a gamble – by excluding the heads (there’s no ‘4,3,2,1’ or ‘I Shot Ya’ on here – the hard head nodder that keeps things a little grimey) he may just be setting himself up for a fall. Y’see, this album is aimed at the incredibly fickle pop market, and when things shift on and Britney and Justin are passed over for a new media doll, the Neptunes are no longer gonna be flavour of the month with this audience – which means that this album does not and will not have any long lasting appeal for them. By choosing to make his sound all-accessible, Cool J will no doubt sell albums by the truckload, but with each highschool girl pinning a pic of Mr Smith’s pecs up beside her Backstreet Boys and N-Sync posters, his credibility rating plummets with the fans who put him in a position to do this kind of album in the first place. Album number eleven should be interesting, that’s for sure – will he stick or twist?
Conclusion – if you want an album for now, to throw on in the ride or in the clubs then by all means pick it up – just don’t expect to be playing it in a few months time – the gloss will have worn off well before then.