LL Cool J is not human.
LL Cool J is a brand, LL Cool J is a product. It’s been a long way since the hungry young kid who couldn’t live without his radio, and LL’s career has died and been reborn more times than a phoenix along the way. LL Cool J is a machine, a corporation; recently, LL Cool J is, depending on just who you’re talking to, either an easy three-word punchline or “the next best thing to Usher, gurrrrrl.” And LL Cool J has become a cultural institution. No matter how much things change (including LL Cool J himself), LL Cool J will always be here.
Todd Smith is human. Over the course of 12 albums and countless reinventions to maintain his relevance, LL has used this trick before, with 1995’s Mr. Smith. When LL Cool J’s shoes become too big for even LL Cool J to fill, he strips down, in concept at least, he pulls out his birthname and reminds everyone that he’s human. It’s worked once, when Mr. Smith went double platinum, and with Todd Smith he’s placing his bets on the maneuver again; if this works, he still has room to pull it off at least once more, with James Todd Smith 11 or so years from now. LL’s career has a life cycle all its own, evolving and changing shape as it goes, and you get the sense that there really isn’t anything that could stop him. He has two clothing lines, he has another book around the corner, he has another movie coming out.
Which isn’t to say that the album is good. But the album is adequate, and it will satisfy his young female fans, and it will buy him a few more cars. It’s almost routine by now: another couple of years goes by, and we get another decent LL Cool J record.
The DEFinition, his 2004 return to form, was a big step forward. Kicked off by the crazy-brilliant Timbaland single “Headsprung” and leaning heavily towards club-friendly danceable rap tracks, it gave his career a sharp shot back to life (again) and popularized Uncle LL with a whole new generation of commercial hip-hop heads. But Todd Smith, its successor, is an entirely different beast that balances the different aspects of LL’s appeal with less success, boiling down in essence to one dance hit with Jennifer Lopez, two “street” tracks, with Juelz Santana and Freeway guesting, and a whole lot of sappy love songs.
This album’s for the ladies, and LL makes no secret of this. Opener “It’s LL and Santana” puts the two’s boasts over a passable Just Blaze collage of electric guitar and trilly synth-organ, but the main attraction here is the novelty of Juelz rapping what’s probably the least profane verse of his career: the track is aimed at those “street hip-hop” fans that have probably never seen “the streets” in their lives. From here the album jumps into LL’s duet with Ms. Lopez (yet another bankable club hit for Jermaine Dupri), the single “Control Myself”: it’s all pittery-pattery drums and thummmmmm-thummmmm bass, while Jennifer spends most of her time doing breathy “uh-huhs” and “okays” as the little synths kick in and out.
The majority of the rest of the album is far mushier fare, with rare minor highlights and a whole hell of a lot of guest appearances. Lyfe Jennings does well by the oddly catchy slow-burner “Freeze”, but Jamie Foxx disappoints by spending his cameo dropping bland falsettos over a forgettable Pharrell beat on “Best Dress”, just like Ryan Toby does a few tracks later. Apart from the first two songs and the later joint with Freeway, the record pretty much turns into a mix of alternating odes to marriage and fidelity and flirty little PG-rated sex raps with lines like “I love how the bottom on your body’s EQ-ed” and titles like “Preserve the Sexy”. He even steals one of Ne-Yo’s love songs by rapping on the “So Sexy” remix as a bonus track.
Todd Smith is glossy, safe, front-loaded, and slick. My mom likes it, enough said. And the young-girl LL Cool J fans will love it too, regardless of what we say here. As for the rest of us? We can go home, we can play “Mama Said Knock You Out” and “Rock the Bells” on our stereos, and we can wait for his next inevitable metamorphosis.
// Notes from the Road
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