LL Cool J :: 10
Label: Def Jam
Author: Steve 'Flash' Juon
10 albums, hmm? To recap how we got to this point, here's a list of all
of LL Cool J's new albums to date chronologically:
* Radio ('85) * Bigger and Deffer ('87) * Walking
With a Panther ('89) * Mama Said Knock You Out ('90)
* 14 Shots to the Dome ('93) * Mr. Smith ('95)
* Phenomenon ('97) * G.O.A.T. (2000)
Unless someone miscounted, that's only eight releases; when "10" is included
it's actually LL Cool J's NINTH album of new material. How did
James Todd Smith arrive at this number? Perhaps Def Jam
convinced him to count "All World" as part of the LL history, even though
that release was a retrospective of his greatest hits to date.
Whether "10" is actually LL's tenth album can be debated about by hip-hop
historians, but of more immediate concern to his fans and to rap listeners
is whether or not "10" is a ten MUSICALLY.
When Mr. Smith declared himself the
"Greatest Of All Time" in 2000, the claim was met with some skepticism.
Has LL Cool J released more albums than any artist or group in rap history?
Not quite. Too $hort legitimately reached the ten plateau in 1996, the same
year LL released "All World" - and to date doesn't have a greatest hits CD.
KRS-One has eleven albums dating back to Boogie Down Productions, and that's
without counting HIS greatest hits CD. If LL doesn't hold the
all-time record for rap longevity, maybe he deserves the title for having
the most hits. That leaves out everybody from Run-D.M.C. to
Scarface to Jay-Z, who have all repeatedly struck paydirt with hot singles
from gold and multi-platinum albums. So maybe he deserved the title for
being rap's most verbally skilled MC?
Even during his first ascent in the 1980's still had to
contend with the likes of Rakim, Big Daddy Kane, Ice Cube and Chuck D for
mic dominance. Since then, hip-hop has seen everybody from Ras Kass to
the GZA stake a legitimate share of the "greatest MC" in rap music.
LL really can't afford to rest on his laurels. While he has earned a lot
of respect for his continued presence in rap music going on three decades,
consistancy has always been an issue for the self-described G.O.A.T. As
much as his fans and hip-hop heads worship albums like "Radio" and "Mama
Said Knock You Out," few can forget how lousy "14 Shots to the Dome" or
"Phenomenon" really were. "Greatest Of All Time" redeemed him somewhat
for the latter with a longer album of higher quality beats and rhymes, but
even that couldn't fully counteract the suspicion he had gone Hollywood
with movie roles like "Any Given Sunday" and "Deep Blue Sea" (which also
had an embarassingly bad LL single), not to mention his role on the
long-running sitcom "In the House."
The ultimate conclusion has to be that whether LL Cool J has ten albums
or just one, he still has to prove himself each time out. "10" certainly
features the right producers for the formula: Trackmasters, Ron 'Amen-Ra'
Lawrence, DJ S&S, and most importantly - The Neptunes. They produce
one-third of this 15 track album, including the lead single "Luv U Better":
"I used to tell you that your hair looked fly
Kiss you slow and stare in your eyes
Now I talk real foul and slick
Every other sentence is, "You make me sick"
Back in the days I was your number one pick
Now your heart's half-broken and that's hard to fix
I had to dig deep inside myself
Cause I can't see you bouncin with somebody else
It's a long journey back to the place we was
When I was too embarrased to admit I was in love
And you was my good girl that wouldn't give it up
I can't let us self-destruct, uh-uh"
The song continues LL's long tradition of being a rapper not afraid to
show a softer side and cross over to pop radio playability in the process;
a direct descendant of songs like "I Need Love" and "Hey Lover." Even if it's
formulaic, why change the formula when it works? LL mastered this style of
rap song a long time ago. Having Marc Dorsey sing the hook while the
Neptunes create a credible mix of bass boom with smooth sound that works
perfectly. Unfortunately, this is followed immediately by "Paradise,"
another pop friendly song with a sung hook - this time provided by Amerie.
There's nothing wrong with it per se, except perhaps a reliance on the
overused "Rising to the Top" sample that's been done to death in R&B and
rap. LL is risking the cred he established battling Canibus on "4, 3, 2, 1"
and "The Ripper Strikes Back" though; songs he recorded in the late 90's
after too many odes to champagne, female beauty and male sensitivity. It doesn't
end with these songs though. "10" also features the candy-laced "Lollipop" and
the pop bounce of "After School" featuring P. Diddy. Modern rap fans
may not recognize the hook as part of Sugarhill Gang's "Rappers Delight"
but old heads who may not take it as a tribute to the original. There's
even a duet with Dru Hill called "Big Mama (Unconditional Love)." Didn't
they break up when Sisqo went solo?
The problem here is exacerbated by the fact LL tries to compensate for
too much softness by going overly hard on ridiculous tracks like "Niggy
Nuts." Even though the Neptunes rarely flop these days, they failed
LL on this cut by providing a backdrop of screaming banshees and overly
simplistic drums that's so offensive listeners won't stick around
long enough to hear him brag, "Paper stackin, daddy get it crackin/
chains might be gold, the joint's always platinum." "10 Million Stars"
and "Clockin' G's" are the only tracks to properly showcase LL's shit-kicking
side correctly. "Mirror Mirror" is a sad return to the whispered flow of
"Phenomenon" that should have been left in the past. More successful is
"Fa Ha," which brings up the subject of women with a new twist - the
dangers of trying too hard to impress a dimepiece. Unfortuntaely
despite the fact this is a new CD straight out of the shrinkwrap, this
copy of the song skips from 4:11 to 4:17 in any CD player it's put in.
Searching for scratches turned up nothing;
hopefully other copies of the album don't have this flaw.
The biggest flaw of all is that LL seems lost lately. On "G.O.A.T."
R&B styled songs like "You and Me" and "Imagine That" made LL sound
like a confidant pimp, and songs like "Can't Think" and "U Can't Fuck
With Me" confirmed a hardcore brashness which dated back to the days
he recorded "Rock the Bells" and "I'm Bad." Mostly tight production
and an impeccable self-assured flow with no flaws in breath control or
vocal tone raise the quality beyond that of many new jacks, which is
exactly what one would expect from this industry veteran. On the whole
though it's hard not to see that LL is searching for his sound again
when every guest on his album save P. Diddy is a crooner, and Diddy
doesn't exactly imply hardcore to most people. One thing you can say
about LL is that he's consistant - he flips back and forth between
releasing albums that are better than average to lesser than average.
This reviewer for one will wait until LL's TRUE tenth album
to see if he comes back with a better balance between soft and hard.
Music Vibes: 7 of 10
Lyric Vibes: 5 of 10
TOTAL Vibes: 6 of 10
Originally posted: October 15, 2002