The constant changing of the guard is essential to pop music’s timetable, but the consumers of hip-hop have made career longevity as rare as beats in a ballet. No matter how talented or successful a new artist may be, the delicate balance of subjects and sounds that makes a star one day can seem awfully dated and defensive a year later; with the dominant role of producers and the singles-driven nature of the industry, very few rappers have proven to be long-term bankable investments.
Old-schoolers have especially suffered from the commercial fade. Although many of New York’s ’80s pioneers have continued to make records, their very endurance paints them negatively as oldtimers; efforts at attaining currency through the employment of hot studio names (a far more effective tactic in rap than rock, where the creation of music generally remains outside the purview of the producer) usually fail on principle, caught between the past and a hard place.
So who told LL Cool J he could go and score credible Top 5 pop hits off his sixth million-selling album in a row? (The irony of the situation is that LL, a Queens high- schooler when he began his recording career, was all of 27 upon the release of Mr. Smith.) Well-hedged as an actor with a past TV sitcom (In the House) and plenty of movie roles, LL Cool J remains a pure entertainer (no pretense of shoot-’em-up malevolence here) and, at heart, a rap traditionalist — the very thing that has doomed virtually all of his original peers to the commercial past tense.
From the very beginning, he came to play with a catchy pop instinct, an exuberant good nature and sharp, straight confidence on the mic. Following his electrifying appearance in Krush Groove (the film that essentially chronicles the birth of the Def Jam label and the launch of the Fat Boys), New York rapper L(adies) L (ove) Cool J(ames Todd Smith) released Radio, a great full-length album (“reduced by Rick Rubin”) that promptly went gold. From the monster boombox on the cover to grooves like “I Can’t Live Without My Radio” and “You Can’t Dance,” LL touches all the right cultural totems, delivering his sharp-tongued lines with adolescent urgency and a deliciously snotty attitude. The rhythm tracks are stripped-down and aggressive; raps on familiar subjects sidestep clichés and are clever enough to warrant repeated listening. One of the earliest full-length rap albums to be issued (it was Def Jam’s first longplayer), Radio remains a primary classic of hip-hop’s original commercial surge.
After that, however, a conflicting set of impulses began complicating the effort. The double-platinum success of Bigger and Deffer (BAD) proves that Rubin is unnecessary to his continuing popularity; still, the uneven effort introduces mushy soul crooning as a hint of LL’s extensive crossover ambitions. Released in clean and dirty versions, Bigger and Deffer draws on redoubtable innovation to diversify itself out of the basic rap mold. LL waxes nostalgic on “Go Cut Creator Go” (which uses Chuck Berry guitar edits), and “The Do Wop,” an imaginative ’50s/’80s hybrid. “I Need Love” is a touchingly romantic ballad with smoothly melodic instrumental backing; “Ahh, Let’s Get Ill” makes considerable use of a chorus to set off the rapid-fire rhymes. Meanwhile, back at the same-old-thing ranch, “I’m Bad” picks up on a piece of “The Theme from Shaft,” “Kanday” touches on classic James Brown and “Get Down” throws the kitchen sink into the hyperactive mix.
While LL the producer comes through with inventive tracks (who else could get away with using the Cheers theme?) on Walking With a Panther, LL the rapper is treading water. Granted, his boasts, romantic entreaties and dynamic delivery put most MCs in the ground, but “Jingling Baby,” “I’m That Type of Guy” and “Big Ole Butt” — standard sentiments given above-average settings — are pretty much all there is to recommend this lightweight album.
LL answered the not-unwarranted charge that he was getting soft and dated with Mama Said Knock You Out, a lyrically aggressive album with harder jeep-beat production by Marley Marl. Cars and girls still dominate LL’s world here, but a more aggressive attitude put back some of the intensity and personality that were in short supply the last time out. Still, the three hits on it describe an equivocal set of impulses: the unforgettable tough-talking title track swings like a cornered titan looking to inflict serious damage, while “The Boomin’ System” is a carefully calibrated nod to street-level tastemakers and “Around the Way Girl” details his romantic ideal in a genial, low-pressure jam. A funkier remix of “Jingling Baby” and the bitter “Cheesy Rat Blues” flesh out an impressive return to form.
After a three-year gap, LL dropped back in with 14 Shots to the Dome, attempting to cover himself with references to guns, blunts and 40s in “Buckin’ Em Down,” “Ain’t No Stoppin’ This” and “How I’m Comin’,” which adapts the female hook from “Jingling Baby.” The efforts to push LL closer to the front of the gangsta class are unconvincing; the dancehall guest shot by Lt. Stitchie (“Straight From Queens”) is all too predictable. “Back Seat” and “Stand by Your Man” (not a cover) both address “the ladies” with the same mushy unctuousness of his past passes; “A Little Somethin’ ” pushes an easygoing party vibe and “Crossroads” is a bizarre but intriguing monstrosity. Most positively, on the amazing and detailed “Funkadelic Relic,” LL replays his career with the avowed awareness of his strange position as an active rap antique.
Having failed to renew his hardcore credentials, Mr. Smith turned them in on Mr. Smith. (Despite the previous LP’s title, this is the album where LL finally unveils his previously hat-shielded dome.) Puffing up gauzy quiet storms of designer soul with producer Jean Claude “Poke” Olivier and others, LL plays the masterful, patient romantic, imagining a crush leading to marriage (“Hey Lover”), crowing about his stature (“Mr. Smith”) and swearing allegiance to the music he used to make (“Hip Hop”). Rashad Smith heats up the funk on an explicit safe- sex session (“Doin It”) and the related “Loungin”; Keith Murray guests on “I Shot Ya.” Given Mr. Smith‘s choice of sappy and crude, the Panther remains the best option.