Monday, May 30, 2016

"3 in 1" --> LL Cool J

Previously on the blog, I've done a few "2 in 1" posts. This "3 in 1" will focus on LL Cool J's 4th, 5th and 6th albums, respectively.

When I last covered LL Cool J, which was during one of my "Hip Hop Nostalgia" sessions, it focused on his 3rd album, "Walking With A Panther." After two successful, classic albums, this was met with such a lukewarm reception from critics and fans alike, leading to the all too familiar claims that LL had sold out, fell off, etc. In my view, the album was relatively good, producing such classics like "Big Ole Butt," "Going Back To Cali," the original "Jingling Baby," even "I'm That Type Of Guy" and of course "Jack The Ripper," which was a bonus track on the cassette version and inexplicably left off the CD. Instead of fading away from the scene altogether, LL seemingly took all the criticism in stride and focused on creating one of the most memorable comebacks in hip hop history. No additional words are needed at this time, so let's head back to 1990 for the first part of this "3 in 1" session!

Release date: September 14, 1990

All songs produced by Marley Marl, except where noted

1. "The Boomin' System"

"Just kick a lil somethin' for them cars that be bumpin!" -Marley Marl

Oh man, this song brings back so many memories. I'm not sure if I shared this before, but LL was actually the first MC I referred to as my favorite back in the day. In late 1990 (or early 1991), I remember riding with my grandma Gladys and  myaunt Denise somewhere, and this song came on the radio. I was SO into it, (even at 6 years of age) that when LL said, "sun roof open, so I can feel the wind blow/I don't give a damn if it cracks my back window," I repeated that line with him and all my grandma and aunt could do was laugh, lol. To this day, I'm not sure if they even told my mom about it (I don't think she would've minded), but needless to say, I've remember that to this day. As for the song itself, while I would've preferred the title track to start the album, this was a definite second best choice to start things; it does so with such a thumping track by Marley, tailor made for "boomin systems" obviously along with fly samples of another classic, James Brown's "The Big Payback" and LL doing a remarkable job just sounding so laid back and chilled throughout. Again, a great way to start the album and it certainly still bumps in the ride some 26 years later.
*5 out of 5*

2. "Around The Way Girl"

"I want a girl wit extensions in her hair/Bamboo earrings, at least two pair"

Those lines above effectively define this classic in a nutshell and remains quite the memorable quote. I recall the ladies really liking this one at the time and some still do today. In short, LL was looking for someone independent and street smart with a sense of style, and considering who this was catered to, this worked like a charm along with additional classic samples courtesy of Keni Burke's "Risin To The Top" and the Mary Jane Girls' "All Night Long."
*5 out of 5*

"She likes to dance to the Rap jams/She sweet as brown sugar wit the candied yams/Honey coasted complexion, using Camay/Let's hear it for the girl, she's from the around the way"

3. "Eat em up L (Chill)"

"Rhyme sayer, and I'm here to lay a load/So watch a player when he's playin in player mode"

Don't let the smoothness fool you, LL could still come correct and catch wreck on sucker MCs when necessary. This song may have a slight comedic presence to it, but the overall point is more than received.
*4 out of 5*

4. "Mr. Good Bar"

LL compares himself to a Mr. Good Bar, the candy bar; you know, chocolate, kind of nutty. Even with more classic samples in the form of "Cramp Your Style" (All The People), "UFO" (ESG) and "Get Up, Get Into It, Get Involved" (James Brown), this joint still comes off smooth as hell as LL uses his "wordy actions" to draw a certain lady's attention (smooth enough for the ladies, but still hardcore for the fellas). I do like the first 4 bars in the last verse (think of Bobby Brown and Big Daddy Kane):

"Don't be cruel cause you'll be on your own
It's my prerogative and it's my microphone
Come and get this ice cream cone
And I'll give it to you, when your daddy ain't home (hmm hmm hmm)"

For the last line, recall Kane's opening from "Ain't No Half Steppin." Great stuff here.
*5 out of 5*

5. "Murdergram"

Without no hook, LL essentially goes in on any and all rivals here. He doesn't name any names, but you get the impression he's definitely referring to Kool Moe Dee and Ice-T, and trust me, this won't be the last time LL addresses his rivals on this album. Much props, again, for the samples, courtesy of Earth, Wind & Fire's "Moment of Truth" and ESG's "UFO" (again). 
*5 out of 5*

6. "Cheesy Rat Blues"

Powered by a recognizable sample in the form of Kool & The Gang's "Soul Vibrations," LL talks about how people flocked to him due to the money, fame and success, but boy do they flip the script immediately if/when that goes away. Even though LL brings a sense of humor here, if you listen closely, he's all but telling you that if he didn't have the aforementioned money, fame and success, he could sink to such depths, including "going to the supermarket and pocketing a raw steak"; but he's LL, he knows better. (And yes, the "cars ride by wit the boomin system" line/sample was used in the opener.)
*5 out of 5*

7. "Farmers Blvd. (Our Anthem)"
Featuring Big Money Grip, Bomb and Hi C

Not only does this big up the portion of Queens, New York that LL is from, this was more or less a showcase for the guests (not clear if they were friends from LL's past or not). Decent for the most part.
*3 out of 5*

8. "Mama Said Knock You Out"

"Don't call it a comeback, I been here for years!!"

You're reading the wrong review if you don't instantly recognize that opening line. LL has always told the story that his grandmother inspired him to create this song, saying to "knock out" the critics who thought he had sold out/fell off after "Walking With A Panther," and man, does he ever deliver the proverbial, lyrical knockout. This was such a defining moment in LL's career, because after being written off in '89, he came back the next year with a true undeniable vengeance and it remains one of his most popular, well known songs, deserving the "classic" label, along with an outstanding video to match. Like I said earlier, this should've opened the album instead of "Boomin System." Classic material (of course with multiple well-utilized samples), also earning him his first Grammy award for "Best Rap Solo Performance." (Note to aspiring artists: listen to this song, watch the video and study LL's inspiration and aggression. If you've unfortunately been written off by critics and/or fans and looking for inspiration, this song is for you.)
*5 out of 5*

And thanks to, check out this clip of Marley talking about how he created this track.

9. "Milky Cereal"

The power of the metaphor steps in again, as LL compares different types of women to popular brands of cereal in a creative touch. Must be heard to be appreciated.
*5 out of 5*

10. "Jingling Baby (remixed but still jingling)"
Produced by LL, Co-Produced by Dwayne Simon

This is the classic remix of the original version that appeared on "Walking With A Panther," and while that version was great, this remix is more remembered. It was radio/TV friendly as '89 turned into '90 and it wouldn't be out of place at any party today, as long as the right audience is present.
*5 out of 5*

11. "To Da Break Of Dawn"

This classic diss song also appeared on the "House Party" soundtrack, also played during the movie when John Witherspoon's character Harry was awakened out of his sleep ("what the hell is going on here?!," lol). It's also notable for LL addressing THREE of his rivals on the same song: Kool Moe Dee ("Songs that ain't strong, brother, you're dead wrong/And got the nerve to have them Star Trek shades on"), MC Hammer (".....that's right, a little kick for that crap/Cause my old gym teacher ain't supposed to rap") and Ice-T ("she's the reason that your album sold a few copies, plus your rhymes are sloppy").

In the latter line, LL is referring to Ice-T's "Power" album cover. The short version of these events is that some people had some things to say about LL overall, but LL, to his credit, didn't take any of this lightly, resulting in such a scathing diss song. There may be a slight comedic vibe here, but LL is still serious and proved he wasn't an MC to be messed with at this point. Only Moe Dee responded ("Death Blow"), but his career had already peaked as the 90s began; Ice-T would focus more on his acting career after this and MC Hammer was MC Hammer. This remains one of the top diss songs of all time, rightfully so.
*5 out of 5*

12. "6 Minutes of Pleasure"

Interestingly enough, I don't ever recall this being released as a single, and even though the song title is as such, I feel this was about 1 1/2 - 2 minutes too long. It's ok, but it lacks the charm of "Around The Way Girl."
*3 out of 5*

13. "Illegal Search"

LL tells the story of being illegally searched by cops, mainly due to who he is and the color of his skin. There's a beginning, middle and end here and it's quite easy to follow. It also comes with a new jack swing type vibe.
*4 out of 5*

14. "The Power of God"

The James Brown ("Mind Power") and Rufus Thomas ("The Breakdown Pt. 1 & 2") samples bring a soulful vibe to this closer of biblical proportions. At first, LL gives the impression he's referring to himself as a God, but as the song continues, you'll notice that he's stressing the importance of God not only in our own lives, but our communities and the world. 
*4 out of 5*

Even with two songs clocking in at a "3 out of 5" rating, the rest of this album is so strong that it more than justifies my 5 star rating. It's way better than "Walking With A Panther," slightly better than "Bigger And Deffer" and it does give "Radio" a run for its money. In 1990, LL fired on all cylinders with one of the greatest comebacks in hip hop history. Lyrically it may have been more of the same, but the formula was updated as the 90s began, he was clearly inspired, focused and aggressive, and a good part of that can be attributed to Marley Marl's production, himself still on a roll behind the boards. Add in the string of successful, classic singles up and down the tracklist and all of this, loyal reader, are the makings of a classic (Certified Double Platinum) album. 

And man oh man does things change as we head into 1993 with LL's 5th album, "14 Shots To The Dome," the second part of this "3 in 1" session.

Allow me to talk about a few things before I start this album. After the massive success of "Mama Said Knock You Out," LL basically took a hiatus from hip hop, adding acting to an already impressive resume by starring in "The Hard Way" and "Toys," respectively. Whether it was a mistake or not to take so much time away from the scene remains up for debate, but when he dropped "14 Shots To The Dome" on March 30, 1993, the hip hop scene had undergone a dramatic change. Even though the East Coast still had a presence, the West Coast hip hop sound had changed things up a bit, mostly due to Death Row Records and the already classic "Chronic" album from Dr. Dre, leading to any and everyone wanting to head in that direction in some form. Will the (still) changing hip hop scene reflect in this album? We shall see.

Most of the songs are produced by Marley Marl, except where noted

1. "How I'm Comin"

Right off the bat, the album opens with this first single. Revisiting it again, I appreciate LL's energy, but it really does sound like he's trying trying too hard.... at being hard, and after the first four albums, to hear him talking about glocks, banana clips, pulling triggers, etc, it sounded like he was trying to fit in with the rest instead of being his true self. My rating is largely based on the energy LL brings here.
*4 out of 5*

2. "Buckin' Em Down"
Produced by Q.D.III

Is it just me or did it seem like LL was trying his hands at a "Treach-like" flow throughout this song? Again, the energy is undeniable and the song is relatively good, but the gunplay talk and all efforts to come so hard is very noticeable, almost to a point that it's more forced and less organic.
*4 out of 5*

3. "Stand By Your Man"
Background Vocals by Dawn Greene

An LL Cool J album wouldn't be complete without a song strictly for the ladies, and that's the case with this apply titled song. It's decent and makes its points, but we have heard this done before (and better quite frankly). Interestingly enough, this was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Rap Solo Performance, but lost to Dre's "Let Me Ride."
*3 out of 5*

4. "A Little Somethin"

Even with the welcomed samples courtesy of King Floyd's "Groove Me" and Run-DMC's "Sucker MCs," this one attempts to bring that same style found on both versions of "Jingling Baby," but it misses the mark a bit while still being a decent song overall.
*3 out of 5*

5. "Pink Cookies In A Plastic Bag, Getting Crushed By Buildings"

There was a time when I wondered what the hell was up with this song title. Aside from a nice sample (The Emotions' "Blind Alley") and the mentioning of fellow hip hop artists, this song is somewhat of an extended metaphor for sex, if you can believe that. I don't recall being that crazy about it back in the day and revisiting it now, LL sounds either tired or uninspired (or both), like he'd rather be anywhere else but on this particular track. (I'm posting the video for historical, throwback purposes.)
*2 out of 5*

6. "Straight From Queens"

This was less about LL's hometown and more about him experimenting with a new style. It was at this point in hip hop that we began to hear more reggae vibes present and the sped up flow(s), but something about those didn't quite fit with LL. I'll give him props for trying though.
*2.5 out of 5*

7. "Funkadelic Relic"

This was probably the best song on the album to this point. LL reflects on his career from his start at the age of 16 to present day 1993. He even addressed some missteps, saying that even though "I'm That Type Of Guy" went pop, he wasn't happy with it. Again, a very good song with that '93 sound.
*4 out of 5*

8. "All We Got Left Is The Beat"
Produced by Bobby "Bobcat" Ervin

I get what LL was going for here, in terms of talking about the government, the conditions in our communities, at the end of the day all we have left is the beat/music etc, however, it comes off as (slightly) being all over the place. This would've been a much more effective song if it were more focused.
*2 out of 5*

9. "(NFA) No Frontin' Allowed"
Featuring Lords of the Underground

You can listen to this and tell that the Lords, also in with Marley Marl on their debut album, "Here Come The Lords," another '93 release, rubbed off on LL with their wild, amped up style. There were many "no frontin' allowed" songs in the 90s and this was another good one to add to the list.
*4 out of 5*

10. "Back Seat"
Produced by Q.D.III

Talk about a true apply titled song right here. LL wants to have all types of episodes in the back seat of his jeep, even with the most classy woman out there. This song was much better than "Pink Cookies...." and LL sounded a little more at home this time around.
*4 out of 5*

11. "Soul Survivor"
Produced by Q.D.III, Andrew Zenable and Christopher Joseph Forte

Whereas "How I'm Comin" and "Buckin' Em Down" showed that LL was trying to force himself to "be hard," this one came across as being a little more organic than those two songs, complete with that sound straight out of '93.
*3.5 out of 5*

12. "Ain't No Stoppin' This"
Produced by Bobby "Bobcat" Ervin

Another song with a welcomed sample (The Dramatics' "Get Up Get Down"), but it was trying too hard at being multiple things. Again, the effort was appreciated, however, it all amounted to being quite the busy song.
*2.5 out of 5*

13. "Diggy Down"
Produced by Bobby "Bobcat" Ervin

The Quincy Jones and Five Stairsteps samples, "Summer in the City" and "Don't Change Your Love," respectively, are the only notable things about this song rather than the actual content from LL. And I'm sorry, but lines like, "this, the season for murder," not buying it from you LL.
*1.5 out of 5*

14. "Crossroads"
Produced by Bobby  "Bobcat" Ervin

Not to do any comparisons, but this song was far apart from Bone Thugs N Harmony's song of the same name, plus Bone's version was much better than this. If LL was going for another biblical closer,  I understand, but if that wasn't the purpose, I don't know what he was aiming for here, plus he was being over-serious, if you will, on a song that didn't need those overtones. 
*2 out of 5*

You know, I'm going to do "the good" and "the bad" to sum up my thoughts (there's no ugly here). The good on this album are LL's energy on some of the songs, as well as "How I'm Comin," "Back Seat," "Funkadelic Relic," "Buckin' Em Down," "(NFA) No Frontin' Allowed," and "Soul Survivor." The bad is everything else. Now, there's no West Coast influence to be found on this album, however, like I said earlier, LL tries too hard at being hard during various points here and it shows, along with sounding uninspired here and there. Updating your sound is one thing, but if any artist changes their sound to "fit in" with what's popular and it comes off as a departure from what sets you apart from fellow artists, that's never good and the results will be met with a mixed or negative response. Speaking of results, although this album achieved Gold status, this album was met with a mixed response, and why critics didn't react to this like they did with "Walking With A Panther" (a much better album), is beyond me. Also, taking a hiatus like he did didn't help his cause either. Another slight "bad" is the production. I remember reading an interview many years ago, and when LL discussed this album, he said Marley "didn't have the eye of the tiger" and I always agreed with that. After "How I'm Comin," "Back Seat," and "Pink Cookies...." left radio and TV, that was it and this album was quickly forgotten about; I still own the original pressing, but it remains out of print. In the end, I'll go with a very generous 3 star rating for this album, and if there ever was a time when he needed to take a hiatus, it was after "14 Shots To The Dome." He would regroup, continue to hone his acting skills and return two years later with album #6, "Mr. Smith."

Release date: November 21, 1995

1. "The Intro (Skit)"
Fine instrumentation, birds chirping, and the sounds of the ocean signify the "winds of change," as LL welcomes us to "Mr. Smith"

"I can't believe you didn't know." LL

2. "Make It Hot"
Produced by Tone & Poke, TrackMasters

This TrackMasters produced, DeBarge sampled opener was quite the smooth way to start this album, and to this day, I'm still not sure who the uncredited, female vocalist is on the hook. Either way, very good start here.
*4 out of 5*

3. "Hip Hop"
Additional Vocals by Terri Robinson
Produced by TrackMasters

Oh man, I love songs like this. LL not only shows mad love to some fellow artists who were on the map at this point in '95 (my favorite year in hip hop, in case you forgot), he also shows that same love (and appreciation) for those who inspired him to pick up a mic. And let's not forget that when the likes of Rakim, Kane, Public Enemy, BDP, etc, were making a name for themselves in the 80s, LL was right there as well, and '95 would mark 10 years since his "Radio" debut. VERY good song with an equally good use of S.O.S. Band's "Tell Me If You Still Care" for the hook.
*5 out of 5*

4. "Hey Lover"
Featuring Boyz II Men
Produced by TrackMasters

This is the song that sold this album. 1) The production was nice and smooth, sampling Michael Jackson's "The Lady in my Life," 2) it featured Boyz II Men, still hot in '95 and 3) it was catered to the ladies, and with all this being said, how could this first single NOT sell the album? In short, LL wastes no time talking in full length about the woman of his eye, even going so far as to say "I gotta take you from your man, that's my mission," then later in the song saying, "I don't want to violate your relationship"; we also have to suspend our disbelief and play like we don't know that LL is a married man. Even though I always thought this was a very good song, I can't think of too many men I know/knew who liked this joint (aside from a few of my cousins), because again, it wasn't for us, but it's all good. As mentioned, "Hey Lover" was indeed a success, hitting #3 on the "Billboard Hot 100" and "Hot R&B Singles" charts, respectively, achieving Certified Platinum status and a second Grammy award win for "Best Rap Solo Performance."
*5 out of 5*

5. "Doin' It"
Featuring LeShaun
Produced by Rashad Smith

If "Back Seat" gave subtle hints regarding LL's intentions at "getting it on," this apply titled song was clearly more blatant, as well as the album's second single. LL and guest LeShaun essentially go the "phone sex" route here, but in a hip hop form. It's one of the few songs from LL that's not intended for younger ears, and it's not too soft for the fellas, but clearly for the ladies.
*4 out of 5*

And here's the remix too.

6. "Life As..."
Produced by Easy Mo Bee

Upon first listen to this one, you would think LL was returning to "14 Shots To The Dome" territory, but here he's not trying too hard to be hard, and the resulting song is good over a nice Easy Mo Bee production.
*4 out of 5*

7. "I Shot Ya"
Featuring Keith Murray
Produced by TrackMasters

"Uh, what's my function, lyrical injection/Blazin' niggas, hittin' em raw wit no protection"

First off, mad props to Tone and Poke for such an ILL use of the late Lyn Collins' "Put It On The Line." This one is unfortunately not mentioned as much due to its CLASSIC remix (more on THAT one later), but LL does this beat justice and sounds so inspired throughout. Keith Murray does the hook here and he'll come along for the remix too. Tight stuff here.
*5 out of 5*

8. "Mr. Smith"
Produced by ChySkillz

LL is ruggedly smooth on this dope title track. I may be overrating it a bit, but this is pretty damn good.
*5 out of 5*

9. "No Airplay"
Produced by Chad "Dr. Ceuss" Elliot

I don't mean to throw any shade at "14 Shots To The Dome," but hot damn, this one song is more hardcore than anything on that album. LL kills this one, and it was quite clever for him to name it as such, because it didn't receive any "airplay" in '95, and it certainly wouldn't grace any radio stations today. Speaking of which, the censored version appears on both explicit and clean releases of this album; the explicit version was released for promotion purposes prior to its release. And yes, what will follow is the uncensored version.
*4.5 out of 5*

10. "Loungin"
Additional Vocals by Terri & Monica
Produced by Rashad Smith

This is another smooth one for the ladies, even down to the samples of the (already) classic "Nite & Day" by Al B. Sure. (I'll include the Total assisted remix, which was probably the better song.)
*4 out of 5*

And here's the remix.

11. "Hollis To Hollywood"
Produced by TrackMasters

Long time fans will immediately recognize the Issac Hayes sample courtesy of "The Look of Love," which was also used by Smif N Wessun on "Stand Strong" from their "Dah Shinin" album, also released in '95. And remember how LL took the names of popular cereal brands for "Milky Cereal?" He uses the same extended metaphor style here, but instead of cereal, we get titles of movies in its place.
*4 out of 5*

12. "God Bless"
Produced by Rashad Smith

LL is moreso thanking all involved for their support and coming with less of a biblical message, if this makes sense, all over another decent sample in the form of Myra Barns' "Message From the Soul Sisters."
*3 out of 5*

13. "Get Da Drop On 'Em"
Produced by TrackMasters

LL is one step ahead of the competition on this appropriately titled song.
*3.5 out of 5*

14. "Prelude (Skit)"
This certainly could be viewed as an "outro," but this album is NOT over because of the classic that's up next!

15. "I Shot Ya (Remix)"
Featuring Keith Murray, Prodigy (of Mobb Deep), Fat Joe and Foxy Brown
Produced by TrackMasters

If there ever was a DOPE ass way to close an album, this was it. The same ILL TrackMasters production accompanies the "phat 5" here and trust me, LL, Keith Murray, Prodigy (who may have indirectly started a trend by being the first MC to mention "the Illuminati/Secret Society" in his verse), Fat Joe and Foxy Brown (in one of her earliest appearances) all bring their lyrical A game. In addition, although Foxy was the "rookie" and held her own, LL, Keith, Prodigy and Joe were hot in '95 and you can tell the hunger/inspiration in everyone's voice from start to finish (so many quotables). Definitely one of the dopest remixes/posse cuts you'll ever hear and the video is just as dope. Classic material and a GREAT way to close the album.
*5 out of 5*

After the slight debacle that was "14 Shots To The Dome," LL damn sure regrouped and returned to the scene in such a successful manner. The energy is not on the level of "Mama Said Knock You Out," however, LL came with an unmistakable smoothness and musical maturity as '95 turned into '96. Like I said before, "Hey Lover" not only was a success, but it effectively sold this album, becoming Certified Double Platinum in the process. Speaking of '96, the momentum would continue for LL, as "Hey Lover," "Doin' It," and the "Loungin" remix would all enjoy respectable stretches on radio and TV. Overall, a VERY good album (better than I remembered), coming in at 4.5 stars.

And the first "3 in 1" post comes to a close. Thanks, as always, for your continued support of the blog and much props and thanks to LL for all of his contributions. Until next time, stay tuned!!!

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