Rhyme After Time

Back In Business
Def Jam

LL Cool J
Def Jam

LL COOL J'S "Phenomenon" is a pop song for 1998. A celebration of a post-gangsta era that began with the murders of Tupac and Biggie, it's a triumph of soap-operatic sexuality over "keepin' it real" violence. Co-written by the great plunderer Puffy Combs, its chorus sounds as if it was copped from Grandmaster Flash's "White Lines." But it's the sudden collision of the jump-cut phrases--like skips on an old-fashioned record player--that snags the ear of even the most casual listener. Then the sheer nerve of the rapper takes over.

For the tune's four-plus minutes, LL's voice barely rises above a whisper. Hearing about a lady who "says she loves Tupac but hates LL," he sidles over and asks her: "Do you really want a thug, or do you want love?" Before long she's "banging on my chest 'til it was black and blue," as LL advises her, "Throw your legs over the bed baby/Work me out." This isn't Luke Campbell (or, for that matter, Tupac) snickering to his homies while he works over a bitch. Amidst the sweatin' and grindin', LL takes time to give props to his woman. Somewhere amid the foreplay he lets it slip that "behind every player is a true playette."

Meanwhile, EPMD's Back In Business is a rap album for 1988, a time just before N.W.A. dropped "Fuck Tha Police" and LL's first ballad, "I Need Love," freaked the entire rap genre. '88 was also the year in which the Brentwood, Long Island, duo of Erick "Double E" Sermon and Parrish Smith cut their minimalist jeep-ridin' debut, Strictly Business. Ain't a damn thing changed. Sermon still scours the crates for '70s-funk-radio samples, and he and Parrish both still rap in a flat, conversational tone as they lace clunky pop culture references--Tiger Woods, Michelle Pfeiffer, et al.--over old-school rhyme schemes. There's even some regional shout-outs and, on "Get Wit This," a resurrection of the word "mack-a-docious."

Remember the EPMD jam "You Gots 2 Chill"? Well, Back In Business offers up "You Gots 2 Chill '97." Recall the ongoing sonic saga of sweet "Jane," the shopworn sexual plaything? Then click on track 13 for "Jane 5." It's enough to bring a smile to the face of any old-time rap fan. The only tune that breaks the mood is "Last Man Standing," the lone track produced by Parrish Smith. Abetted by samples from Barry White and Mobb Deep, it's moody and atmospheric, not stripped-down and chopped-up. Set against the rest of the record it's as disorienting as an episode of Twin Peaks.

Different as they are, Back In Business and Phenomenon are both post-gangsta joints. Hard-core gangsta music will always have its cadre of adherents, but with Tupac and Biggie dead, Suge in jail, and Dre and Snoop running for cover, it will never again be the cultural signifier it was in the post-grunge mid-'90s. In response, record labels are digging up the roots, reissuing, remaking, or reinventing--some might say, rehashing--classics, such as, well, EPMD. At the same time, you have the crossover route: artists acting as all raps to all people. Right now Puffy is the latest flava in that vein. But over the long haul, nobody is all things to all people like LL Cool J, the man with his own prime-time sitcom, memoir, clothing line, and Village Voice cover story titled "Phat Cat."

LL's seventh album is pegged for similar crossover success. On "Candy," he's so smooth that he can drop choice couplets like "They couldn't feel the things we felt/Mirrors on the ceiling we'd melt" inside a cuddly reminiscence of puppy love in Queens so sweet it could have been done by Tony Danza. He offers a throw-down with Busta Rhymes on "Starsky & Hutch," a street-dealer fantasy named "Another Dollar," and a "Doin' It" sequel with LeShaun titled "Nobody Can Freak You."

Yet, he saves the two best songs for the record's end. "4,3,2,1" is an old-fashioned boast-off, with Redman, Method Man, Cannibus, and DMX all getting their chance to spew before LL blows them away with his own breakneck rhymes. It harkens to his greatest '80s moments--when his debut Radio redefined MC braggadocio, and his microphone wars with Kool Moe Dee were something to get excited about. It lands harder than anything on Back In Business.

But while on one hand LL is giving us the business, the autobiographical track "Father" offers a more solemn and intimate vow of authenticity. Set to a gospel-gothic soundtrack, the song is about his abusive, absentee pops who shot LL's mother and granddad when LL was 4 years old. Despite the cynicism such bald pathos may inspire, I had tears in my eyes the first time I heard it: The other day, I received the single in the mail, adorned by a picture of LL on a couch, his two sons on his knees, and a half-dozen platinum albums framed on the wall behind him. The card read, "During this special time of year, we all need family. Thank you for being part of mine. Best wishes for the holiday season! LL Cool J."

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