One can hardly blame LL Cool J for the brand of swagger that he has cultivated for himself over the years. Not only was he one of a handful of Def Jam's early artists to break out into the Top 40 (who can forget, after all, when he came back to Cali?), but he was also one of the first rappers to boast a legitimate acting career. LL has become a cottage industry of sorts, with all the blockbusters and sit-coms he has under his belt. Now a bona fide box office heavyweight, how has all this stardom affected his music? If the resident street smarts and the high octane beats of The DEFinition are any indication, music is still clearly Cool J's lifeblood.
Never modest ("Damn look at my body/ Could'a been a navy seal" he boasts at one point), his longevity is surely something to be admired. It's not as if Big Daddy Kane or Kool Moe Dee have come out with an album recently. In fact so few of his contemporaries are currently recording, it could be argued that, at this point, LL is in a class all his own in terms of the current Def Jam pantheon of artists. As he gracefully puts it on the R. Kelly backed "I'm About To Get Her," "They call me Cool J/ Been platinum so long/ My skin's turnin' gray." It could also be argued that LL, at this point, embodies what it means to be old school in the first place.
One of hip-hop's hardest working progenitors, LL partners with the great Timbaland on more than half the album's economical 11 tracks; as such DEFinition does not want for currency. LL is still an old school, Queens native at heart in that he still raps about his most important vitals: his skills on the mic. His collaborations with Timbaland, as on the revved up debut single "Headsprung," give ample weight to his assertions that he remains the "hip-hop boss of the Empire state." The cool groove of "Feel the Beat" is minimalist by Timbaland standards, whereas they completely rev the dazzle on the super salacious "Rub My Back."
They get luscious about matters on the sexed up "Apple Cobbler," but on the softer tunes, he remains the great seducer. There is other great production here -- he purrs his way through the buttery, 7 Aurelius produced "Hush" -- but most of the album's greatest moments happen on the slower Timbaland/LL tracks. "Can't Explain It" is a dry martini of a track, with just enough R&B flavor to make it sweet. "Every Sip" is an equally smooth concoction, and evidence that no hip-hop album will ever chart again without Timbo's golden gloves. LL is far beyond the need to prove himself -- his some 20 albums do that for him. What he has proven, though, is that the game, and Def Jam, are not quite ready to go on without him. His album sleeves may promote his upcoming movies, but his music still promotes what matters most: his rhymes.
By Rachel Parker