Best When He's Hungry, Boring When He's Full
L.L. is at his best when the chips are down. That’s always been the pattern. He grew up poor and scared and ambitious in Queens, and his first singles, “I Need a Beat” and “I Can’t Live without my Radio”, are perhaps the hungriest-sounding things ever recorded. He kept the edge up for a couple of years, but after his third album, Walking With a Panther, he was considered over: too conceited, too pop-oriented, too everything. I was there at the Rapmania show at the Apollo when he got straight clowned, booed by people who cheered lustily for Third Bass and Salt N Pepa. (Let me just go on record as stating that WWaP is a great, great album and didn’t deserve the hate.) So, of course, Uncle L had to come back hard with Mama Said Knock You Out, one of the finest and farthest-reaching hip-hop albums of all time.
This keeps happening to L.L. Cool J. 14 Shots to the Dome was a very personal statement (“Crossroads”, “Funkadelic Relic”) that got slept on by everyone. Some attribute it to weird songs like “Pink Cookies in a Plastic Bag Getting Crushed by Buildings”, but I’d vote that it was the flat production by Trackmasters. So he went back to the lab and came back with Mr. Smith, which had some singles that banged like a screen door in a hurricane. Phenomenon was kinda boring, and I’m sure fistfights were started over the tracklisting on his “greatest hits” album All World, but L.L.‘s feud with Canibus seemed to have reanimated his battle lust, and 2000’s G.O.A.T. Featuring James T. Smith: The Greatest of All Time was leaner and meaner than he’d been in years.
Which leads us up to 10. This is L.L. Cool J’s tenth album in 17 years, all of them on Def Jam, all of them listenable and interesting—Is this a record? Can someone look this up? Yes, it suffers from the inevitable “L.L. album where he’s not necessarily all that hungry and therefore a little too self-satisfied” syndrome, but only periodically. There are times on 10 where he’s in full effect boyeee with a side order of chips. It’s a fun record, it’s a frustrating record, it proves my thesis that L.L. is only dope when he’s provoked and hungry. Let’s get on with the review.
10 is interlarded with interview segments with BET host Free, and he accepts the adulation of such a conceit with, well, conceit. The self-aggrandizement of the “Intro” and the other segments here is the worst of L.L. And the opening track here, “Born to Love You”, is the second worst of him. I’ve read Marcello Carlin’s fascinating review of this track claiming it as a star’s introspective questioning of his own status, but I think Carlin’s trying too hard. “Born to Love You” is simply a list of all the things James Todd Smith likes about being L.L. Cool J. It starts with some smug mumbling (“Fresh off the private jet from Europe, did four months out there, extra paper, scooped that up”), and moves on to nimble but icky flossing wherein he pretends to wonder why chicks dig him (“Is it the Fortune 500 covers? / The family man that got one baby-mother? / The way I brainwash y’all to love one another? / Got the whole community bouncin’ to unity?”) The chorus, where he repeats “Why?” while being loved all over by a groupie, is far from the soul-searching that Carlin hears—that “Why?” is not real, it’s just the same false modesty that he’s been up to since Bigger and Deffer. Otherwise, he wouldn’t be chuckling so damn much.
But then he comes correct with “Luv U Better,” which as I write is #6 on the Billboard Hot 100, and rightly so. It’s true and honest in its self-condemnation in a way that we haven’t heard in a long, long time, and I’m sad that this will never be a #1 single. When L.L. takes himself to task for having been too selfish and full of his success to be a good husband, you buy it completely. When he pleads, “I’m gonna rub your lower back / Share my dreams / I love you / Let me show you what I mean / Give you the deepest love a girl’s ever seen / Watch you sleep so peaceful and serene”, you start thinking maybe the man’s on the right track.
But the rest of the LP is a seesaw battle for the soul of L.L. Cool J. Despite his bragging to Free about how “Paradise” is his favorite song on the album, it’s nothing but sloppy crummy boringness that revisits an old L.L. beat (“Round the Way Girl,” ho hum) and actually says things like “pour bubbly” and “hey girl I wanna rock your world” and “paradise is very nice”. And it’s already hitting on 105.9, so I’m sure it’s going to be the next single, and it stinks, and I’ll have to listen to Amerie’s tuneless wailing about a million times this winter. Ew.
I don’t want to put the whole thing on Trackmasters, but I think there’s a reason that L.L. uses them so much. Tone and Poke are a two-man James Todd Smith Appreciation Society. Hardly a track ever goes by where they don’t quote an old beat or encourage him to recycle his own older better material, and the nadir has finally been reached by the penultimate track on the record. Things don’t come more clichéd than “Mirror Mirror”, which uses some Busta Rhymes flamenco guitars to underscore an entire track of L.L. quoting the titles of L.L. songs to talk about how great L.L. is. This is the very definition of wack bootyness unless you count the way-worth-than-worthless Puff Daddy track “After School”, which could also contend for that title.
But the other producers are much more successful. Ron “Amen-Ra” Lawrence kicks it with a couple of fine tracks, chief among which is “10 Million Stars” with its cosmic “I Sing the Body Electric” outerspace avantgardism. Chop and Big Joe provide the perfect backing for L.L.‘s ode to his grandmother, “Big Mama (Unconditional Love)”, which closes things out nicely. And I’m pretty impressed by the sprightly “Fa Ha”, helmed by DJ S&S. An album full of stuff like this and L.L. would be well nigh unbeatable, because he tends to rise to the challenge. His impassioned performance on “Fa Ha” (backed by killer samples from Hall and Oates’ “Rich Girl”) is what he should be doing all the time, an ode to the bad girl you just can’t quit, because you’re “Hypnotized / Cause somebody combined thighs with lies”.
But it’s the Neptunes tracks that kill the most here. Besides “Luv U Better”, they shine with their punishing work on “Clockin’ G’s” and “U Should”, their great backing for the not-bad tribute “Amazin’”, and most especially the sparse spare wonderfulness that is “Niggy Nuts”. This is perfect L.L., because he gets to quote himself in the title phrase, but he’s not stuck in the past on this one. Pharrell and Chad push him, make him work for his money with a wailing old-school funk beat, and L.L. delivers in that hard-ass voice we love so much. “The boss is home / Regulatin’ on chrome / Tell Russell it’s line one / L.L.‘s on the phone / Get off my niggy niggy nuts”. And when the breakdown comes, they hit with a huge fat synth tone that sounds like a got damn fire alarm and it’ll scare the bejeezus out of you if you have it up loud enough. Which you will.
I’m not a big Neptunes groupie, here, but it’s clear that L.L. is energized by the chance to work with the hippest producers in music today, and his rhymes fit the occasion. The fact that he only wants to challenge himself for half of an album is sad and telling. He’s best when he’s hungry, and it’s too bad that everybody knows that but him.
// Notes from the Road
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