If you two are playing close attention, you'll notice something a bit different about today's entry in the reverse-chronological catalog of HHID's LL Cool J write-ups. Yep, that's right: this one isn't a Gut Reaction piece, as I actually own this album for some ungodly reason. I'll choose to believe that my younger self elected to pick up Phenomenon, James Todd Smith's seventh studio album for Def Jam Records, simply because he knew that I would eventually write about it on this very blog. That's the only decent explanation I can come up with for this project appearing in my crates that nobody believes actually exist, and it's laughable at best, since my younger self had no idea what a "blog" was or why "Gucci Mane". Just why.
Phenomenon was released in 1997, around the time that LL was fully engrossed in his acting career, as he was picking up movie roles left and right, as if they were pennies on the fucking sidewalk. Its ten tracks were carefully crafted to capitalize on the audience that his previous effort, the comeback-of-sorts Mr. Smith, garnered: most of the songs were meant to appeal to the mainstream (read: female) audience, whereas a handful of tracks were singled out to prove that LL Cool J was still capable of entertaining the hip hop heads. Almost as if to piss off every single person on the face of the Earth, though, James had the audacity to hire on Puff Daddy and his production team as Phenomenon's overseers, guaranteeing that the project would, at the very least, sample a bunch of songs from the 1980s for no good reason, because that was what Sean "Puffy" Combs did back in 1997, in between spoonfuls of his Count Chocula.
Phenomenon has been largely forgotten today (for a damn good reason, I might add, but I'm getting ahead of myself); in fact, it would have probably vanished from the face of the planet had it not been for a single song that, improbably, proved LL Cool J to be relevant in our chosen genre again. Older hip hop heads will know exactly to what I'm referring to; the rest of you will just have to scroll down a bit. Suffice it to say, that single track isn't enough to warrant any sort of Phenomenon renaissance.
Besides, this album has allegedly sold more than one million copies, so LL Cool J clearly doesn't need any more exposure.
Phenomenon kicks off with its “White Lines (Don't Do It)”-jacking title track-slash-first single, casting doubt on the durability of the entire project for me. Cool James adopts a whisper-like flow, as if he's supposed to be cooing into a hot chick's ear for the duration of the track, and completely forgets about the male half of the world population, for which this song will do absolutely nothing for. Given how the instrumental somehow transformed an anti-cocaine screed into a blingy club song, it won't come as a surprise to discover that Puffy and his Hitmen are behind it. I'm sure there are women out there who love this song, but ask yourself, do you really want to be with a woman with such awful taste in music? For longer than the one night, I mean.
2. CANDY (FEAT. RICKY BELL & RALPH TRESVANT)
As love raps act as Ladies Love's social currency, he makes sure to fill up the short Phenomenon tracklisting with as many as he can before he conceivably loses his straight male fanbase (if there were any still around at this point in his career). This song is predictably saccharin, and not just because of the title, and before you ask, naming the song “Candy” and then inviting two members of New Edition to sing on it is absolutely not a coincidence, as they try their best to not sully the memory of the original “Candy Girl” while performing what is ostensibly an extension of their hit, which is still a guilty pleasure of mine. (You two feel the same way, too. Just let it happen.) James piles on so much sugar that his lady love walks away with Type II diabetes, but this is a love rap, so I kind of saw that coming.
3. STARSKY AND HUTCH (FEAT. BUSTA RHYMES)
Phenomenon contains exactly two songs for the hip hop heads: “4,3,2,1” and this track, featuring Busta Rhymes over a poppier-than-usual L.E.S. production. In between hearing Trevor Smith (no relation to our host) talk about shooting his load all over some anonymous groupie's back and Cool James spelling out his rap name, inserting unnecessary punctuation and thereby proving that he isn't even entirely sure what his name is supposed to look like what printed out, “Starsky and Hutch” (which has nothing to do with either the show or the not-so-great Todd Phillips movie of the same name) bored me to death. The rest of this write-up will have to be completed from beyond the grave, I suppose.
4. ANOTHER DOLLAR (FEAT. BUSTA RHYMES)
Mr. Rhymes also appears (in more of a hypeman fashion) on this track, which would have counted as Phenomenon's third attempt at a hip hop song, had it not been produced by committee (Curt Gowdy shares a credit with Poke & Tone of The Trackmasters), which automatically disqualifies it from the running. However, Cool James tackles a different topic than he's used to, basing the entire song around how much money he has and how much more he will make in the future, as opposed to what he normally does: briefly bragging about it while trying to fuck your girlfriend. Since that is pretty much what seventy-five percent of all other rap songs are about, I'm not sure exactly who the audience for this shit actually is, as this track doesn't cause any of the listeners to empathize with him, especially those few who paid to see that horrible remake of Rollerball in a theater.
5. NOBODY CAN FREAK YOU (FEAT. LESHAUN & KEITH SWEAT)
LL Cool J and LeShaun collaborate on a sequel to their Mr. Smith hit duet “Doin' It”, except this time they invite Keith Sweat into
their bed the studio in the hopes of coercing him to both sing the hook and possibly pick up lunch for the duo, if he's in the area, because they'll totally pay him back when he arrives. This follow-up completely misses the point, turning the foreplay between the two leads into generic dance floor come-ons (admittedly, Poke & Tone's instrumental doesn't help all that much, either), causing you to mentally check out of this not-so-phenomenal song early. Moving on...
6. HOT, HOT, HOT
The chorus on here is fucking godawful, but if you isolated it from the rest of the track and set it to a pulsating electro beat, you'd have a genuine European club hit on your hands. In no way is that intended to be any sort of praise for this bullshit, though.
7. 4,3,2,1 (FEAT. METHOD MAN, REDMAN, DMX, & CANIBUS)
This is the only track from Phenomenon that anybody even remotely remembers, and this is from an album where the title track was the first single, so that's a bad sign. Anyway, Erick Sermon provides a shuffling beat for Redman, Method Man, and DMX blah blah blah, who gives a flying fuck, all you two care about is the fact that “4,3,2,1” is ground zero for the LL Cool J / Canibus feud. Here's my take: Germaine's original verse contained a line about LL's microphone tattoo on his arm that wasn't even really a dis (he simply wanted to “borrow” it, presumably to spit a rhyme, not understanding that it wasn't a real microphone and it couldn't amplify soundwaves properly), but Cool James lost his cool, insisting that Canibus rewrite his verse: in doing so, LL also promised to retool his own bars, which contained a response to the “attack”. Germaine did as he was told, but LL kept his verse the same. A dick move? Absolutely. Was Canibus justified in taking his attack to the next level? Not necessarily: had he kept his fucking mouth shut, LL's verse would have sounded incoherent, as he would have been attacking an imaginary foe, but thanks to Germaine's confirmation (and all of the publicity this beef generated for both artists), it's now impossible to listen to “4,3,2,1” and not imagine the elder statesman berating his younger charge. This is still the best song on Phenomenon hands down, but every single other guest is overshadowed by the controversy, including Master P, who was featured on the song's “remix” that really only erased Canibus and inserted P's verse before that of Cool James. Give it up to our host, though: even when throwing punches at the shadows surrounding him, he still has the capacity to sound entertaining on the mic. (For the record, “The Ripper Strikes Back”, which was never officially released, is the pinnacle of his performance in the battle, which he absolutely no-fucking-question-in-my-mind won: when was the last time you saw Canibus do anything relevant?)
8. WANNA GET PAID (FEAT. THE LOST BOYZ)
This radio-friendly collaboration with the Lost Boyz (a crew that I really need to get back to, writing-wise) samples Orange Krush's “Action”, which would have worked much more effectively had I not listened to Puff Daddy and Jay-Z's “Do You Like It...Do You Want It” much more recently. Curiously, this song was produced by Daven “Prestige” Vanderpool, one of Puffy's Hitmen, which can only mean that Sean Combs heard this song (as Phenomenon was released before Puff Daddy's Forever) and decided to swipe the instrumental wholesale for use on his own project. (Which is probably exactly what happened, as Prestige shares a production credit on the Forever track.) Anyway, this song isn't horrible by any means, but this wasn't the way I wanted to reintroduce the Lost Boyz to the blog, especially as they're not given much to do on here, aside from the chorus and the occasional ad-lib (speaking of which, R.I.P. Freaky Tah). You'll notice that I haven't written a single word about LL's contribution to this song until just now.
As hip hop is the last major art form that still revels in its homophobia (just like how modern-day country music is a haven for pro-Republican screeching, save for the Dixie Chicks, which makes that genre different from pretty much every single other form of entertainment media in the motherfucking world), it was pretty ballsy for Cool James to use a sample from George Michael's “Father Figure”. (As a fan of 1980s music who actually likes early George Michael and some Wham!, though, I wholeheartedly approve.) LL decides to use this song to frankly discuss how much of an abusive asshole his father was (he once opened fire on his mother, for instance), lending this track more credence than your typical Cool James song. It isn't great to actually listen to, but it was intriguing enough.
10. DON'T BE LATE, DON'T COME TOO SOON (FEAT. TAMIA)
Yes, that song title means exactly what you think it means, So yeah, I'm done here.
FINAL THOUGHTS: Phenomenon is the reason why I stopped giving a fuck about LL Cool J, and in listening to it today, I'm reminded that my decision was the correct one. Cool James attempted to follow up the commercial success of Mr. Smith by not altering his formula, a combination of love raps with some hardcore thug shit thrown in for good measure, but he completely forgot to make the songs even remotely entertaining. Even the set's best track, the massive collaboration “4,3,2,1”, is only interesting because of its backstory and the resulting fallout: Erick Sermon's beat on there isn't one of his best, and the guests who weren't named Canibus all get lost in the haze, which isn't a good thing when said guests are motherfucking Method Man, Redman, and an in-his-prime DMX. The few “hip hop” songs on Phenomenon don't connect, since Ladies Love hasn't sounded convincing in that department ever since he scored his role on In The House, and the love raps fail to sound appealing to the opposite sex. Phenomenon is an aural representation of a man coasting on laurels that he was just recently rewarded, so none of the points on here feel earned. In short (because this write-up is already much too long), Phenomenon is a hot mess. A short hot mess (I'm really thankful that this album is only ten tracks deep), but a hot mess regardless.
BUY OR BURN? No.
BEST TRACKS: “4,3,2,1”, if I absolutely have to choose something