Note for Note

Part one of our look at LL Cool J’s discography had more ups and downs than a rollercoaster. Sad to say, part two is mostly downs.

After the success of Mr. Smith in 1995-96, LL capped off the first phase of his career with a Greatest Hits album. A decade of hit singles and albums had made him one of the most successful rappers in the game. Most people don’t obtain legendary status within his or her genre by their 30th birthday. LL did. So, what did he do? He got the musical equivalent of fat and happy. Or old and out of touch. Or all four. He also developed a secondary career as an actor, which threatened to be his primary career at times and eventually did turn into his main motivation in the last half-decade or so. While there have been flashes of brilliance during this period, there certainly hasn’t been much in the way of groundbreaking material. Furthermore, for every “man, LL hasn’t lost it,” there have been two or three “damn, LL’s lost it.”

Let’s take a look…

Phenomenon (1997)

PhenomPhenomenon was definitely the jiggy-est album of LL’s career. I remember hearing that the idea behind what became Phenomenon was for it to be a soundtrack for his autobiography “I Make My Own Rules”. What it turned out to be is the a party album that fits right into the pop-rap landscape of 1997. The king of 1997 was none other than Sean “Puffy” Combs and as you may have guessed, Puffy was the executive producer for the album.

The title track features LL in hushed tones, in what is a very well-produced song, but it’s not original. And that’s the story of the album. It’s a fun album and a quick listen, but it’s sample heavy and blatantly inauthentic. “Candy” features Ricky Bell and Ralph Tresvant reprising their roles in New Edition’s “Candy Girl.” It’s LL’s ode to his wife. There’s the autobiographical “Father,” which explains his relationship with his abusive dad, and of course, it samples George Michael’s “Father Figure.” Both songs are good, but they just feel lazy (and so 1997).

My two favorite tracks on the album are the posse cut “4, 3, 2, 1” featuring Canibus (who also feuded with LL after the album came out), DMX, Method Man, and Redman, as well as “Hot, Hot, Hot” produced by Puffy’s Hitmen. Phenomenon is fun, it’s fast, and it’s jiggy, but what makes it entertaining also helps make it, at times, forgettable. (GG)

Grade: C+

G.O.A.T. Featuring James T. Smith: Greatest of All Time (2000)

GOATIt took feuds with Canibus, Wyclef, and Jamie Foxx to get LL to realize that his game had slipped. I could’ve saved him some sleepless nights and told him myself. The result was a combination of songs in which LL tries to show a fire that he hadn’t had in a long time, mixed with some of the most commercial songs of his career. As have been pretty much all of his albums post 1990, it’s an absolute mixed bag. I know Big Money wasn’t a fan and while I’m not either, there are songs that give you hope that he still cared about his music career. “Ill Bomb” was a mixtape special used to get people excited about his return and it’s the best song on the album. In 2000, I was kind of hyped about the return.

“Back Where I Belong” is a look at the feud with Canibus and features Ja Rule (remember him?). LL digs deep and wonders whether he still has it or not. Was he still hungry? The answer would eventually be no, but he was trying to find it. Songs like “This Is Us” with Carl Thomas (remember him?) and “You And Me” with Kelly Price (remember her?) are genuine love songs that work well. But he also has freaky songs like “Hello” with Amil (I know for sure you don’t remember her) that are so disingenuous, it makes the genuine songs seem disingenuous just by association.

At the end of the day, he was both trying to fit in and trying to prove that he was better than the same music he was trying to fit in with. It’s kind of an impossible task and the album as a whole is a critical failure. And this is advice to any rapper – if you name your album G.O.A.T., make sure it’s hot. (GG)

Grade: C-

10 (2002)

LL10Yet another massively inconsistent album from LL, although I’d certainly say it’s an improvement over the atrocity that was G.O.A.T., but all that would’ve really taken is some mild engagement from LL.

“Ladies Love” definitely has more of a presence on this album-in his mid thirties at this point and well entrenched in Hollywood, LL had no right playing the hard role anyway. Of course, with no street stories to tell and some (alleged) roid rage happening, L’s not got a whole lot to day except talk about himself-he spends much of 10 discussing his longevity in the game, and it kinda works for him. He scores with the delightfully bombastic “10 Million Stars” and rides the grittiest sounding Hall & Oates sample ever on “Fa Ha.” The Neptunes (then the preeminent production team in pop music) handle a good chunk of 10, and gave LL one of his biggest hits with “Luv U Better,” although other tracks prove that Pharrell and Chad didn’t have the best chemistry with Cool J. One of the album’s best tracks is a sentimental tribute to his beloved grandmother featuring Jodeci? Dru Hill called “Big Momma (Unconditional Love).” The rest? Harmless, inoffensive, and bland pop-rap, for the most part. Pleasant to listen to, I guess…but only a handful of tracks stick to the ribs. I remember liking this album a bit more when it was first out than I do now.  Later pressings of 10 added the track “All I Have,” a snoozy love jam with Jennifer Lopez that stands, dubiously, as LL’s only #1 pop hit. (Big Money)

Grade: C

The DEFinition (2004)

Up to this point, The DEFinition would be the single worst album of LL’s career. It would get even worse, just one album later, but I’ll let Big Money tell you about that. If “Mama Said Knock You Out” LL was the zenith. This was the opposite. He absolutely didn’t care anymore.

On the bright side, Timbaland took control of much of the production and while it’s not original or revolutionary, it’s at the very least, clean. Maybe even a bit overly glossy. There’s one song on the album that is creative and that’s the 7 Aurelius produced “Hush.” Outside of that song, you have to look long and hard at anything that’s memorable. LL’s flow is solid on “Feel The Beat,” but on the very next song, “Apple Cobbler,” he mimics Missy Elliott’s flow, which results in one of the most horrendous songs of his career. Sorry LL, but time has passed you by. (GG)

Grade: D+

Todd Smith (2006)

All but one of the tracks on Todd Smith features a guest performer. This stands as proof that LL was gunning for pop success as opposed to making a creative masterpiece and/or stands as proof that the self-proclaimed G.O.A.T. was on autopilot. it certainly makes one scratch his or her head when considering that there was nary a guest on LL’s first four albums (save for his untalented homies on Mama Said Knock You Out‘s “Farmers Blvd. (Our Anthem)” A lengthy streak of barely average albums had lowered expectations by this point, and Todd Smith still ended up being disappointed. A couple of the romantic tracks are tolerable, but only the Freeway-assisted “What You Want” generates any real heat among the rest of the songs. The marriage themed “Down the Aisle” and the gospel-rap “We’re Gonna Make It” are the only other tunes worth salvaging, and they’re buried all the way at the end of the album. You’re not going to want to sit through cameo appearances by the likes of Juelz Santana and Jennifer Lopez (AGAIN?) to get there, though. Trust me. (Big Money)

Grade: D

Exit 13 (2008)
Exit13Exit 13 should’ve been titled Exit Stage Left. While all was not terrible on LL’s 12th and final album on Def Jam, it was still a messy divorce. The album was supposed to be executively produced by 50 Cent, but it was pushed back several times and eventually, 50 was just on one track with no producer credits to be found. Before its release, LL also had some not-so-kind things to say about Jay-Z (who was running Def Jam at the time) as in, he only cared about his own albums and not enough about his artists’ albums.

The only good thing about the album is that LL’s flow is solid and at times, dangerous. The problem is that he remains entirely unfocused, rapping about rap’s ills on “Dear Hip Hop” and then committing those same sins all over the album. He tries to be poignent and political on “Mr. President”, but it’s Wyclef Jean’s awful off-key 911-like hook that takes any seriousness out of the song. Yes, the same Wyclef that he feuded with after the Canibus incident. Radio single “Baby” swung and missed twice, first as a rap/R&B joint with The-Dream and then as a rock remix (what is this, 1997 and Puff Daddy?) featuring Richie Sambora.

“It’s Time For War” and “Feel My Heart Beat” with the aforementioned 50 Cent are low-flame heaters. But the problem with this album is the exact same problem he’d had post 90s; time had passed him by and while he could still go, he had nothing to rap about. His Def Jam swan song wasn’t the worst album of his run, but it wasn’t good either. (GG)

Grade: C-

Authentic (2013)
AuthenticIf LL was Janet Jackson, he would’ve named this album 28 YO. Twenty eight years after Ladies Love told us that he couldn’t live without his radio, comes “Authentic”. “Authentic” is LL’s realization that it’s pretty lame to try and hang with the new kids. In fact, he drops many a line mentioning how lame it would be to try and pretend he was still a youngster. He brags about how even if he wasn’t LL, he’d still be with the same woman, also shooting on the young bucks who he says pay for their girls to stay with them.

When you’re LL, it’s not hard to find people to want to work with you. But instead of trying to lean on a new jack to get on the radio (ahem Juelz Santana), LL leans on respectable artists like Charlie Wilson, Seal, Chuck D., Brad Paisley, and Van Halen for help. All help make LL’s latest album sound much more “authentic” than he’s sounded in nearly 20 years. The non-accidental track with Paisley “Live For You” is slightly cheesy, but is genuine. “Whaddupp”, the first single with Chuck D., Travis Barker, and Tom Morello is a LL trying to go a little too hard, but I respect the hustle. Listen to “New Love” just to hear Charlie Wilson in fantastic voice on the hook and “Closer”, similarly to hear Monica.

LL doesn’t really sound more inspired. He just sounds more secure in where he stands. No longer trying to chase down a younger audience, LL is rapping to the dads and moms who have “been here for years.” While it’s not perfect, it’s possibly his best work since 1997. (GG)

Grade: C+

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