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13 shots to the dome

The 10 hours and 29 minutes of LL Cool J’s career
By RICHARD BECK  |  September 3, 2008


Promises made by L.L. Cool J on “U Should”
1 | you can shop ’til you drop
2 | you can pick your own rocks
3 | I’ll carry bags
4 | make you giggle and laugh
5 | strawberry bubble bath
6 | get your toes done
7 | French perfume
8 | brand new mansion
9 | free rein to decorate
10 | French Riviera walks
11 | caress your face
12 | keys to aforementioned mansion
13 | bracelet (1)
14 | shoes (unlimited)
15 | aromatherapy
16 | massages
17 | religious instruction
18 | tease with tip [of penis]
19 | bite bottom lip
20 | swift climax
21 | favorite food
22 | incense, candles
23 | PlayStation 2 competition
24 | pillow fights in waterbed
25 | mirrors on ceiling
What to do with LL Cool J? Is it possible to remember a time when he was not there, licking his lips and flashing that disarming smile in the strobe-lit background? Is it possible to imagine a future in which his hulking cheer will not be vaguely present? Tupac, OutKast, Wu-Tang — one points to these weird, brooding geniuses and says, “Yes. That’s hip-hop right there.” But hip-hop is not just neon personality and virtuosic beat science; it is also crassly opportunistic, blandly entertaining, boring. It is middle-aged — and nobody better represents that more complex, alternately triumphant and underachieving version of hip-hop than LL Cool J. Here’s to L(adies) L(ove) Cool J(ames), more fully hip-hop than the rest of us.

And here’s to LL Cool J, as he approaches a professional milestone with his new Exit 13 (Def Jam). More than 20 years ago, Rick Rubin signed the 17-year-old Queens MC to his burgeoning label Def Jam with a — get this — 10-album contract that would later balloon to 13! With LL having expressed annoyance over Def Jam’s less-than-enthusiastic promotion of his 12th record, Todd Smith, this would seem to be the end of the road for him and his label. So is this baker’s dozen any good? Will the Collected Works of LL Cool J make for a handsome box set? What do these albums sound like?

They sound a little like everything, actually. No rapper has so effortlessly appealed to such a broad audience. This doesn’t seem to be something LL had to learn; he had it figured out on his ’85 debut, Radio, which holds up as one of the genre’s classic front-to-back LPs. He can throw a party for the fellas: “LL Cool J is hard as hell” is how he opens “Rock the Bells.” And he can throw a party for the ladies: “One glimpse of your eyes and my heart beats fast,” he raps, softly, sweetly, on “I Want You.”

On every record he’s made, LL has juggled these two groups of fans, never more successfully than on 1990’s Mama Said Knock You Out. The title track, with its slashing, witty power, takes care of the veiny-armed weightlifters and then some (it makes DMX sound merely annoyed); “Around the Way Girl” rivals even Will Smith’s 1991 hit “Summertime” for lilting, intelligent charm. You can call this “selling out” if you like — many have. Me, I think it’s sort of genius. Have you heard 50 Cent’s love songs? He sounds like a paroled sex criminal on the brink of a relapse. It’s not so easy to have it both ways, but LL pulls this off. He’s like the man sprang fully formed from some grand focus group’s dull, mushy brain.

LL is well-adjusted — and it’s worth taking a moment to note the improbability of that happy sanity. He was only four years old when his psycho father opened up on both his mother and his grandfather with a 12-gauge shotgun (both wounded, neither killed). And his stepfather proceeded to beat him with everything from household tools to an electrical cord. So it’s a little miraculous to hear LL, on record and in interviews, so little troubled by psychic pain. He is happily married to Simone Smith, a woman he met in 1987 down the street from his house in Queens. He has four children. “You know, if somebody say take the garbage out, I take the garbage out,” he explains in a YouTube clip. “I don’t say, you know, I’m number 10 on the TRL, you take your own garbage out.” Surely, at least, there are all-night benders at New York hot spots? “Man, to keep it real with you, I like to go home and go to sleep.”

All this has its musical price, of course: repetition, poor imagination, boredom. The four albums that followed 1993’s 14 Shots to the DomeMr. Smith, Phenomenon, the never-endingly titled G.O.A.T. Featuring James T. Smith: The Greatest of All Time, and 10 — are by and large hip-hop leftovers, what remained once Missy Elliott and Eminem put out the good stuff. Released in 2004, The DEFinition was a minor renaissance for LL, and that thanks to its being almost entirely produced by Timbaland. But even then, stack up DEFinition’s lead single, “Headsprung,” against almost anything Timbaland had produced for Aaliyah in the preceding years. It can’t compete. On these albums, LL Cool J is maddeningly second-rate, the king of the middle.

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  Topics: Music Features , Entertainment , Hip-Hop and Rap , Music ,  More more >
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