I am fully aware that there are several hip hop legends that HHID has yet to get to. But for James Todd Smith, I'm going to do something different. Instead of starting from the beginning, I'm jumping straight to the end, and I'll work my way backwards, Memento-style.
Almost a year ago today saw the release of two things: the last LL Cool J album to hit the stores, Exit 13, and the release of LL Cool J from his contract with Def Jam Records, a rap label that he essentially helped build, having been signed to it for the past forty-seven years and all. Cool James utilized every opportunity to trash-talk the very folks at his label who had the power to authorize a marketing budget for Exit 13, as he grew weary of the direction that his second home was travelling in (namely, down the path of really shitty rap music). I can't blame the guy one bit, but truth be told, in 2008 LL Cool J was better known as an actor than he was for his battle rhyming, even though he did essentially defeat Canibus in a highly-publicized feud by letting the upstart play himself out.
Exit 13 is technically LL's twelfth full-length album, but it's his thirteenth release (there was a greatest hits compilation thrown in there somewhere to fulfill the terms of his contract). According to Interweb lore, it was originally supposed to be executive-produced by Curtis Jackson, and some of you two may remember the Def Jam faucet leaking tracks featuring James alongside various members of G-Unit in an effort to force the correlation. When Exit 13 was finally released, Curtis saw his contribution narrowed down to one song and his name removed from the back cover (thank fucking God). Not that this made Exit 13 any better or worse for public consumption, though: this album is, apparently, the only one in the man's catalog that didn't sell at least half a million copies, leaving a black mark on a not-exactly-spotless record.
So why is this a Gut Reaction post? I stopped buying LL Cool J albums several fucking years ago, that's why. The man transitioned into R&B (rap 'n bullshit) so gradually that by the time he popped up on the radio doing songs with Jennifer Lopez, I was actually surprised. This was not the Cool James that I enjoyed listening to back in the day. So I never paid any attention to Exit 13 until I came across it in a library, when I figured that this would be a slightly funnier way to start writing about LL Cool J than if I just went with Radio.
Let's see if I'm on the right track.
1. IT'S TIME FOR WAR
This song has a majestic sound (provided by Suits & Ray Burghardt) that led me, falsely, to believe that Cool James had returned to the ferocity that he last displayed on the white label Canibus and Wyclef dis track “Return Of The Ripper”. Alas, no such luck. There are sparks of LL's past mic dominance, but for the most part, “It's Time For War” is about as pointless as looking for weapons of mass destruction that don't exist.
2. OLD SCHOOL NEW SCHOOL
You want to welcome us to Exit 13, LL? The album started one track ago! Anyway, Ryan Leslie's beat would never be described as “hardcore” or “aggressive”, even though James Todd's lyrics are relatively spiteful. The hook is jacked from The Notorious B.I.G. (LL recites a couple of lines from “Who Shot Ya?”), but that misfire aside, this isn't all that bad. For being from Rollerball's LL Cool J versus “Rock The Bells” LL Cool J, mind you.
3. FEEL MY HEART BEAT (FEAT 50 CENT)
What's with LL's flow? He sounds like he's deliberately swiping from J-Kwon, of all people, and when was the last time that ever happened? Is this really what LL's alliance with G-Unit has produced? I hate to say it, but James may have been better off siding with Ja Rule, because this shit is lame.
4. GET OVER HERE (FEAT ITZ YA GIRL NICOLETTE, JIZ, LYRIKAL, & TICKY DIAMONDZ)
LL tries his hand at speed-rapping over a bouncy beat, and I can't help but feel bad for the guy, since had he not littered the track with unknown steroid carriers, and instead maybe called in actual rappers, this could have been halfway interesting. As it stands...
5. BABY (FEAT THE-DREAM)
This sounds like every other song I've ever heard from The-Dream (is the hyphen between the two words only so that nobody confuses him with Puff Daddy's girl group Dream?), except that LL spits verses for the ladies in a hilariously graphic fashion. This shit would fit right into pop radio playlists today, so maybe LL had a valid point when he complained that Def Jam (read: former president Jay-Z) wasn't promoting him properly. Notice that I never said that I liked this song.
6. YOU BETTER WATCH ME
A simple drum-driven Marley Marl (with M. Will) beat, punctuated by a sample from Joe Ski Love's “Pee Wee Dance, seems to announce a return to form for James Todd Smith. Truth be told, this isn't bad at all, although hearing LL's voice kind of crack when he recites the song's title in the “chorus” is a bit distracting. Still: nice.
7. CRY (FEAT LIL' MO)
So apparently LL Cool J pulled vocalist Lil' Mo out of her spider hole to perform on this song. It's not as if this is LL's very first love rap or anything, but is it strange that it sounds like it's his first one, as if he originally wrote (and recorded) this when he was four years old or something? This shit is corny as fuck. Move along, folks: nothing to hear here.
8. BABY (ROCK REMIX) (FEAT RICHIE SAMBORA)
This was curiously included only two tracks after the original version: have you never heard of the concept “bonus track”? The-Dream is replaced by Bon Jovi's Richie Sambora, which explains why the music on here reminds me of the first minute from “Livin' On A Prayer”. I shouldn't have to write that LL basically reduces an already blah song into a ridiculous commercial attempt, but I just did.
9. ROCKIN' WITH THE G.O.A.T.
When taken literally, rocking with a goat is entirely unappealing. LL completely ignores the fact that the word “goat” in the title is an acronym (for Greatest Of All Time), even though he's the guy who mainstreamed said acronym in hip hop, and spits censored verses that lead to bizarre imagery of sitting on the front porch while feeding Nanny a tin can. DJ Scratch's beat was okay, but LL sure does waste it.
10. THIS IS RING TONE M...
A year before Shawn Carter declared death to Auto-Tune, LL Cool J called for the murder of another annoying hip hop trend, the ring tone. DJ Scratch (again) provides a beat which is actually pretty good, and aside from his blatant homophobia at one point (um, LL, you work in Hollywood, man!), James sounds pretty fucking good. Well, I was surprised, anyway.
11. LIKE A RADIO (FEAT RYAN LESLIE)
A homage to LL's first album? Not even fucking close. I believe that most women would laugh in vocalist Ryan Leslie's face if he told them that he wanted to “turn [them] on like a radio”. James Todd should be ashamed.
12. I FALL IN LOVE (FEAT ELAN OF THE DEY)
What the fuck is this bullshit?
13. UR ONLY A CUSTOMER
This sounds like something Curtis Jackson would have released circa The Massacre. Pass.
14. MR. PRESIDENT (FEAT WYCLEF JEAN)
Good to know that LL and Wyclef have ended their Canibus-incited feud. This song is already dated (LL was clearly speaking to Bush and not Obama on here), but kudos to James for at least acknowledging the problems we face in America without immediately taking either a Democratic or Republican stance. That doesn't mean the song is good or anything: all it really did was stress me out even further. Maybe I should just move to Canada.
15. AMERICAN GIRL (FEAT MARK FIGEROA)
LL follows his chastising of the President (at the time) by trying to prove he's more patriotic than you are (this fucking song starts off with, and samples, “The Star Spangled Banner”, for God's sake). Is Jessica Simpson really the best personification of an “American Girl” you can come up with, LL? Because I know a lot of women who will be offended by that statement. Ultimately, LL's revisionist history is nothing more than goofy cotton candy.
16. SPEEDIN' ON DA HIGHWAY / EXIT 13 (FEAT FUNKMASTER FLEX)
Contrary to what you may have thought, this actually isn't two songs contained within the same track. I thought it was interesting that LL goes out of his way to mention that he's bumping “Ether” while he's driving: does he really hate Jay-Z that much? How passive-aggressive of him. Other than that, I don't remember anything about this song, except that it was much longer than it had any right to be.
17. COME AND PARTY WITH ME (FEAT FAT JOE & SHEEK LOUCH)
LL is no stranger to club songs. However, he's also no stranger to club songs that suck. Fat Joe is as boring as he usually tends to be these days (Joey Crack, like most rappers who score a radio hit, has gotten lazy, plain and simple), but Sheek, also known as the guy in The Lox who has to try twice as hard as his bandmates, sounded alright. This song is still pretty awful, though.
18. WE ROLLIN'
19. DEAR HIP HOP
LL's letter, in which he vows to restore his beloved genre to its original luster, blames materialism, sexism, and a lack of originality for tarnishing hip hop music, all while conveniently leaving out that LL was a part of the problem. Yeah, he was one of the best rappers early in the game and in his career, but Exit 13 is definitive proof that LL isn't capable of solving a goddamn thing here.
THE LAST WORD: Exit 13 sucks hippopotamus balls. Out of nineteen tracks, I only found a couple of songs that I can imagine could have maybe possibly come from the same guy who recorded “Boomin' System” and “Mama Said Knock You Out”. It's not that LL's confidence behind the mic is shaken: far from it. Instead, he's trying to hard to appeal to a mainstream audience that, for him, no longer exists. Exit 13 is chock full of love raps and club song attempts, none of which will help him attract new fans nor will keep the few who were still lingering. At this point in his career, I'm certain that LL Cool J has fans that have no fucking clue that he was ever a rapper, and maybe it should remain that way from this point forward. I'm siding with Def Jam and Jay-Z on this one: there's nothing on Exit 13 that deserves any kind of promotional push. Sorry, Charlie.