This review holds true to the maxim “we welcome any feedback” that appears on the RapReviews home page, because “14 Shots to the Dome” is a direct suggestion from one of our readers. I decided to take this one on personally given that the album is now nearly 25 years old (released March 30, 1993) and I remember that a pre-RapReviews ‘Flash’ thought it was a dramatic departure from the formula that had served L.L. well on “Mama Said Knock You Out.” We all knew that James Todd Smith was HARD, he had demonstrably proved that time and time again every time he was criticized for a song like “I Need Love” or an album like “Walking With a Panther,” but there was something about “14 Shots” that just sounded DESPERATE to prove a point nobody had asked or wanted L.L. to prove again. It was forced, it was corny, and much of it was just plain TERRIBLE as a result. Would two decades and change temper a younger Flash’s opinion? Let’s see.
From a technical perspective the opening track “How I’m Comin'” is not a bad song. Marley Marl, QDIII and Mr. Smith himself combined to produce a speaking thumping, head nodding beat that you wouldn’t be ashamed to crank up to the maximum in your ride (and we all know L.L. loves a “Boomin’ System”). The song gave a nod to its chief sample source in the title – Bobby Byrd’s “Hot Pants – I’m Coming, I’m Coming, I’m Coming.” It also borrows from “Don’t Change Your Love” by Five Stairsteps and “Operator’s Choice” by Mikey Dread. All of the right elements are there but something’s still wrong. Even on the title track of “Mama Said Knock You Out,” L.L. seemed to be simply stating facts with a braggadocious flair and a cocky confidence. “Don’t call it a comeback, I been here for years.” It was a statement of truth, and he delivered it with authority, but he was still FLOWING to the beat. On “How I’m Comin” that confident demeanor gives way to something one would never expect from the author of “I’m Bad” – a harrowed and unsettled urgency that causes L.L. to CONSTANTLY YELL to the point his voice is constantly breaking like a second puberty. It has been suggested by others that L.L. was rattled by the rising popularity of West Coast gangster rap, and if so it comes across in his lyrics, which are now obsessed with violent machismo. “Stiggidy-step up and get your nostrils damaged.” Not only is that a bad enough impersonation of Das EFX to sound like a diss, it just sounds silly. Why would you damage nostrils? Why not just break someone’s nose? We just saw you punching a heavy bag. Did you forget how to throw a jab?
“Never step to a real man
Cause your rhymes only work on a playground program
They impress your little friends, bring you a little ends
But you still you gotta ride in your man’s Benz
Word to hip-hop, I’ma blast ya
Gotta set you on fire cause they gassed ya
Boom, blow, Batman, bang, pow
Unh (what) unh (what), that’s the way it’s goin down
Ny new album ain’t no joke
You wanna take me out – how many blunts you smoke?”
I could ask L.L. the same question after the line “Take off your clothes and taste the steel,” which is unintentionally phallic as is his admonition to “Open up your mouth and taste my GLOCK” in the next verse. Did I already mention L.L. is suddenly obsessed with guns? It’s certainly not a coincidence that this album is called “14 Shots to the Dome.” I feel the need to reiterate that this is not a TERRIBLE song. There’s some unnecessarily silly male posturing from a rapper who scarcely needed it here but this is still a song you can rock. It’s an over-the-top L.L. Cool J, but the man we grew to appreciate as the top representative of Farmers Boulevard can still be heard through all the posturing. It wasn’t an experimental one-off though. “Buckin ‘Em Down” picks up right where “How I’m Comin'” left off, exaggerating the previous song’s bad tendencies without the benefit of a beat that’s worth bumping. Not only are his analogies bad here, they’re just plain incorrect. “Now you got more beef than a gyro.” I’m not saying beef gyros don’t exist, but that’s not generally the first meat you associate with it. Traditionally it’s pork or chicken in its country of origin but often lamb outside of Greece. I’ve got “beef” with him not knowing a staple of New York street food.
Thankfully L.L. seems to calm down a little bit on the Marley Marl produced “Stand By Your Man,” but despite a pleasant New Jack Swing melody and a well placed Slick Rick sample, it was actually the worst performing of the four singles released from this album. There’s still a hint of L.L. Cool J being just a little too hyped even on this relatively mellow track. It’s not hard to pick up if you compare it to a more successful sextified track like “Around the Way Girl.” Before L.L. Cool J was just rapping about the kind of fly girls that he liked, but now instead of wooing women to his side he was demanding obedience out of any woman who was at his side. Yikes.
“You understood that what we had was good
you stood by your man like a real queen should
That’s why now I got you livin your dream as
A beautiful Wisdom, a part of my team and
As long as I live on this earth
Anything you want is what your loyalty’s worth”
The following track was not a single but “A Little Somethin'” is a LOT more enjoyable, in no small part because of the King Floyd “Groove Me” sample – which ironically was also used by his rival Kool Moe Dee on “All Night Long.” Go figure. Unfortunately we can’t let a good sample get in the way of the absolute ABSURDITY of the next track. “Pink Cookies in a Plastic Bag Getting Crushed By Buildings” has multiple problems. First one I’m going to give you straight up facts and I will not accept any arguments on it: Big Daddy Kane OWNED The Emotions’ “Blind Alley” on “Ain’t No Half-Steppin’.” Anybody else who was going to rap over that same loop better have come with something at least as good if not better, and L.L. doesn’t even come close. Problem number two is that this awkward title is L.L. Cool J’s chosen analogy for “the act of making love.” He can’t even call it F#$%ING. There’s one good thing about the song and that’s that L.L.’s delivery actually sounds like this is a leftover track from “Mama Said.” He’s calm and composed but that can’t save you from his cornball hip-hop references in the first verse. Long before the term CRINGE was a thing this song was it.
“I said you’re cool as +Ice Cube+-ah
She said ‘You’re that +Public Enemy+ I seen on the tube-ah’
Nawww – I’m like your Uncle baby
The style of your beautiful face drives me crazy
Well can we do ya so +Heavy+ ah +D+?
She said ‘You tried to play me like +Big Dad-dy+’
I said ‘I know your +Tribe+, I +Called+ and re +Quested+
for you to be manifested’
She said ‘You know the +Same Gang+ and my +Flavor Unit+ too?”
I said ‘ou only knew the certain things I wanna do, do you?’
Rub ya down with warm +Ice-T+
Make ya feel “Brand Nubian+ in-stant-ly
+Boogie Down+, and check this +Production+
Gimme them lips,they look good for suction”
So far 20+ years hasn’t been enough to save this album from its fate, but let’s move to the next third and see how it fares. “Straight From Queens” has actually improved a little with age. I usually skipped over this track back in the day but the patois chatting on the chorus is a refreshing change of pace, and the rap style for L.L. actually seems to be a throwback BEYOND “Mama Said” to some of his more tongue twisting flows in the 1980’s. I dig. It’s not the most creative loop musically, pretty simplistic in fact, but a fair representative of the era with some nice L.L. samples, screams and horny horns thrown over the top. The next track is even better though. If there was one and only one reason I’d recommend “14 Shots” to anyone besides the lead single it’s “Funkadelic Relic,” which WASN’T released as a single, but sure as hell should have been. There’s a wonderful Bert Kaempfert horn sample I can’t do justice to here – just listen to it.
That’s not all though – this song is lyrically on point in a really big way. L.L. Cool J reminisces about the old days, how he tried to get signed to Sugarhill Records “but Sylvia was treatin’ me cold,” and how even after he broke through with “I Need a Beat” he’d go to do shows but be depressed to see “my name was misspelled” on the marquee. This is the authentic L.L. Cool J I want to hear from. There’s no forced gunplay OR foreplay here – it’s just a funky stroll down memory lane over some funky ass beats. This is seriously such a highlight to the album that if I was making an L.L. “Greatest Hits” compilation I’d include it, even though it’s quite likely nobody other than those who played this tape/CD/record start to finish ever heard it. It’s just that good.
Unfortunately Cool J goes right back to proving he can keep up with the West Coast by getting somebody shot to death right in the intro of “All We Got Left Is the Beat.” He states “the projects are hell” as if that wasn’t self-evident, then describes a scenario that sounds more like Chicago in the 2010’s than Queens in the 1990’s. Then we get into some really weird gender politics in the next verse that don’t seem necessary to whatever point he wanted to make.
“The black women don’t understand
Cause they don’t realize what it is to be a black man
In the mornin’, a brother feels like a jerk
Seein’ black women and white men go to work
So all women fear, the brothers ain’t real
Cause they won’t give us no jobs, that’s the real deal”
When L.L. Cool J suddenly reminds me of Donald Trump, that’s not a good look. It’s a better song musically than “NFA (No Frontin’ Allowed)” though, which sounds like and basically IS a Lords of the Underground track from their “Here Come the Lords” debut. It should have been left there but somehow got shoehorned into L.L.’s album, probably because he was the bigger star at the time, but he just winds up sounding like the guest star on his own song as a result. Mr. Funke and DoItAll completely steal the show here. L.L. gets his mojo back with “Back Seat” though, a place in his ride where L.L. (in)famously swings episodes with the ladies of his choice. It was the most successful song off this album for good reason despite regrettable lines like “Don’t lie, take it in your eye.” Ewww.
The final third of this album is a mixed bag of inconsistency ill suited to a rapper of L.L. Cool J’s talents. “Soul Survivor” goes back to the format of “How I’m Comin'” with Todd screaming all of his lyrics into the mic, only without a suitable beat to enjoy listening to or driving around with. “Don’t ever sleep, I’ll wake you up with an axe!” Why so violent L? Were you trying to beat the Gravediggaz to the punch in inventing horrorcore hip-hop? It didn’t work. “I’m letting eighty tigers loose in the neighborhood!” See? That’s just what I mean about L.L. going overboard with silly machismo on this album. It was so transparent that nobody even bothered to challenge him – it’s not like anybody recorded a rap where they tried to one up him with 200 elephants and 500 lions. There was no need because nobody took this seriously.
Speaking of horror “Ain’t No Stoppin’ This” starts out with some creepy laughing and the unintentionally hypocritical lines “No recognition cause they said I’m from the ghetto/carrying nine millimeters and stilettos/I guess I need a TV show to get mine/but I don’t feel like kissing no director’s behind.” I shouldn’t need to point out to you that he went on to star in TWO television shows after these infamous words (“In the House” and “NCIS: Los Angeles”) but I will anyway. Sorry L, you played yourself. I can get down with “Diggy Down,” but only because it’s an almost note-for-note ripoff of The Pharcyde’s “Passin’ Me By” in sampling Quincy Jones’ “Summer in the City.” Well when you’ve got QDIII working on your album I suppose borrowing from pops is to be expected. The album comes to a rather fitting conclusion on “Crossroads” which could summarize the position L.L. Cool J had put himself in by his own choice to go hard. On this one his screaming works though which means that the album at least comes full circle on a pleasant note.
“In the sky there appears a great light
Burnin all the flesh off the creatures of the night
AAAHHHH! Cryin in a childish tone
Terrified of dyin a painful death alone
Don’t smile, bless the innocent child
Power of God is gonna get you through your trial
Throw like a hit from the vest
Take it in a slump, ha ha, feel it in your chest
Conquerin the world with the words
Leadin the children like herds
I can feel it buildin, I’m about to explode
I’m walkin on the crossroad”
So here we are now, “14 Shots to the Dome” reconsidered, and putting it into proper perspective I can say it’s an album of its time for all of the right AND the wrong reasons. It’s more fascinating to ponder why L.L. Cool J had such an abrupt musical shift and suddenly became a man who was chasing trends in rap instead of setting them, and it’s an uncharacteristic lack of confidence coming on the heels of releasing an album that was (and still is) a hip-hop classic. Why L? I’m not sure we’ll ever really know, but there are SOME redeeming moments on the album. They come between baffling episodes of L.L. yelling, posturing, declaring his violent intentions seemingly for their own sake, and then calmly reflecting on his career and his sexual escapades. It’s almost musically schizophreic but I don’t mean to belittle those who suffer from genuine mental illness by saying so. Everything done here was L.L.’s own choice but for God knows what reason he made a lot of the wrong ones here.