Monday, July 27, 2015

CD Odyssey Disc 763: LL Cool J

I had a crazy weekend with Sheila out of town, getting up to all the silliness I used to get up to as a single guy.

OK, not all the silliness but I did waste a whole evening playing video games and another whole evening out clubbing with friends which is pretty much the alpha and omega of single life. For all the fun I had, the best part was Sunday afternoon when Sheila got home.

Disc 763 is….Phenomenon
Artist: LL Cool J

Year of Release: 1997

What’s up with the Cover? LL Cool J is not on this cover. He has been abducted by aliens, as you can see from the flare of their retreating spacecraft in the night sky. The aliens have abducted one of earth’s pioneer rappers but they have left behind a futuristic font for the betterment of mankind. At least until the nineties end and we realize it wasn’t that great of a font after all.

How I Came To Know It: I only bought this album a few months ago. I’ve been digging through LL Cool J’s back catalogue and this was my latest foray. I picked it because I remember really liking the title track back in the day.

How It Stacks Up: I have three of LL Cool J’s studio albums. Sadly, I must put “Phenomenon” at the bottom of that list. Such is life.

Ratings: 2 stars

LL Cool J is the rap master of the sexy groove, but to have true staying power, an album has to have more than a sexy groove.

For the most part, “Phenomenon” has a great feel as an album, with a lot of backbone-slidin’ beats that are delightfully just on the wrong side of raunchy. Sean “Puffy” Coombs (or whatever he’s called now) helped produce the record and gives it a smooth sound with just a hint of jazz that is generally a good match for LL Cool J’s chill rap style.

The title track has a hook that is irresistible. Listening to it you are certain that you are also “something like a phenomenon”, rather than just another schmuck with a set of headphones bobbing his head while waiting for a light to change.

Unfortunately, most of the album doesn’t live up to this song. There are a lot of guest rappers, but unlike on, say, a Gang Starr album, I found the multitude of voices distracting. Some I found downright boring to listen to, and the songs only picked up when Cool J cut in to rescue them.

Even then the album suffers the fate of a lot of late nineties rap, of having a dearth of samples (thanks for nothing, people who wrecked rap with sampling laws). The samples that are there just feel like empty radio pop in places, and while no one can out sex-rap LL Cool J, the album needs a bit more range.

A lot of the other songs are forgettable, like “Candy” which has saccharine rhymes like “you will always be my Candy/someday we will start a family” sung by the “high voice crooner guy” who is common on all rap albums of this era.

When Cool J goes full raunch it works better, like on “Nobody Can Freak You.” This is a song not just about sex, but rather a single sex act, described by LL Cool J as “No doubt the opposite of 96.” That is as subtle as the song gets. Still, it is delightfully wicked, and unlike a lot of modern rap songs, eminently…mutual.


On to the rest of the album, which I found easy to listen to as background music while vacuuming my house a few weeks back, but not terribly inspiring when given a more critical listen.

Father” is the album’s best effort to get serious; a song about an abusive father, and the son and mother that pay a terrible price to escape from under his clutches. It is a good idea and has strong writing but suffers from a bit too much production. It is a raw topic and I’d love to hear Cool J handle this song ten years earlier, with just a backbeat and a microphone.

The last song on the record is “Don’t Be Late, Don’t Come Too Soon” which is a six and a half minute monstrosity with a string section that feels like something you’d find in your grandparents records (“101 Strings plays classic booty music!”) and an annoying smooth jazz sound that drones on forever. It’s the musical equivalent of tantric sex, with no happy ending.

This isn’t a bad album, and if you just want something to dance to at a party, or something to put on after a party (ahem) then this is definitely baby-making music (note: be ready with the remote to skip “Father” as it is decidedly a mood killer). For my money there is a lot of better rap options out there, including plenty of better LL Cool J albums.

Best tracks: Phenomenon, Nobody Can Freak You

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