March 26, 2011

LL Cool J - Phenomenon (October 7, 1997)

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.

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.

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.

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.

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...

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.

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?)

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.

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.


BEST TRACKS: “4,3,2,1”, if I absolutely have to choose something




  1. I remember the absolutely shitty album cover turning me off the record even before hearing it.

  2. Max, you are probably the only person in the world (outside of LL Cool J stans) who seriously believes LL won his beef with Canibus. I mean, are you serious? "Second Round K.O." is, easily, one of the best diss tracks of all-time. 'Bis ate LL alive...

  3. LMFAO, Max is still entertaining to read when bashing LL albums. At least you are getting closer to the GOOD stuff he's made. Can't wait for "Walking with a Panther"!

  4. have to agree that ll destroyed cannabis on rip the jacker "I'm an idol slash icon/an tell wyclef dont even turn his fuckin mike on" quality

  5. ment ripper strikes back

  6. Two more trash albums to go until Mama Said Knock You Out...didn't realise how bad LL Cool J's later output was until you did this backwards order set of reviews (mainly because I ignored everything after Mr. Smith)

  7. great review as always. why dont you review some of the early gangsta rap records, i know that you reviewed boogie down and king t and nwa but you left ice t and especialy godfather of gangsta rap schoolly d. just a suggestion, anyways keep up the good work max. (best blog on a whole fuckin world, kid)

  8. Bis is a sensitive douchebag who is very easily provoked. Writing a Premo diss was a dick move.

  9. @Matt
    Listen to "The Ripper Strikes Back". LL murdered Canibus. And no I am not an LL fan, IMO he got only one good album and its "Mama Said Knock You Out". The rest of his carrier is trash.

  10. T:

    "Now watch me rip the tat from your arm/Kick you in the groin, stick you for your Vanguard award/In front of your mom your 1st, 2nd and 3rd born/Make your wife get on the horn call Minister Farrakhan." - Canibus in Second Round K.O.

    Canibus destroyed LL's reputation on that track. Everyone is so quick to point out that 'Bis didn't sell any albums, but they fail to mention how badly LL's album sales dropped after Canibus ripped him.

  11. Did anybody else notice the half-assed 2pac-diss at the beginning of the title track?

    "Baby girl was draped in Chanel
    Said she love Tupac but hates some LL
    Seen her at the bar with anklets and toe rings
    She can take a prince, turn him into a king
    I was looking at her in the limelight, pearly whites
    Said her man get paper but he don't live right
    All these emotions flowing inside the club
    Do you really wanna thug or do ya want love?"

  12. I tell you. LL days ended with Mama Said Knock You Out. 14 Shots To The Dome was OK.

  13. 99% of canibus fans dont exist

  14. Alan PartridgeMarch 27, 2011

    I've got to say I agree about this album; it is truly terrible - the songs, the art work, everything. I bought it at the time of release, and it's only still in my collection due to fact that it wouldn't be worth trying to sell.

    Although I think that the sentiment that LL pulled a bitch move with 4, 3, 2, 1 is fair enough; I personally feel LL should be applauded for doing something that has gone down in hip hop folklore - namely having the audacity to diss (expertly, I might add) a young upstart rapper on the same track on which he also appears! Yes Canibus came back hard with Second Round KO, but LL's response (The Ripper Strikes Back) is equally, if not more, ferocious (and only receives limited acclaim due to the fact that it only ever had a strictly limited white label release, whereas Canibus's track was on his album). I always believed that the reason LL gave at the time for doing his verse in the first place (because of the "can I borrow that" line) was probably just a convenient excuse for the fact that he probably just didn't like Canibus full stop, and found him irritating enough that he would write a verse about it. This makes sense when you take account of Canibus's subsequent track record with getting on other rappers' nerves.

    With regards to LL output prior to this release; I always felt that Walk With A Panther was an underrated hip hop LP. There's some heat on that album.

    I do, however, strongly believe that you need to relisten to Step In The Arena and Daily Operation, as giving them only a "burn" status greatly diminishes this site's credibility. I agree that there are many supposed "classic" albums out there that aren't as good as people would have you believe, but these two albums DEFINITELY don't fall into this category. They are both classic from beginning to end (especially SITA). You have given albums by the likes of Rah Digga and Kid Cudi "Buy" status. Now, I'm not here to slate their efforts, but there is absolutely no way in a million years that anybody with a set of fully fuctional ears and a penchant for hip hop can suggest that either of those albums are better than the two Gang Starr albums, and keep a straight face. But that's exactly what your reviews would have people believe.

    I guess what I'm trying to say is: please take another listen; we all make mistakes!

    PS I don't believe for a second that you would even entertain the idea, as you come across as being stubborn as hell!! No offence!

  15. Great review, Max. This is when I dismissed LL. Also, “The Ripper Strikes Back” was actually released as a bonus disc to DMX's debut as part of Def Jam's Survival Of The Illest promo that year.

  16. Yeah Max, way to support buying Kid Cudi's album in that review that you, and only you, wrote for it...

  17. Yeah, I was also about to pat myself on the back for that Kid Cudi write-up, before I realized that recommending that album didn't sound like me at all.

    Also, the LL song was released on a bonus disc to DMX's album, sure, but it was still never "officially" released.

    Thanks for reading!

  18. Alan PartridgeMarch 29, 2011

    OK Mike,

    I get it; the Kid Cudi review was in fact a "reader's review". Well done; you got me there. I didn't notice, if I'm being honest. But Max wrote the review of Rah Digga's Dirty Harriet album, right? And Max wrote the reviews of both Step in the Arena and Daily Operation? And whilst I'm at it; he did also write the review of RZA's digital bullet album, which was also recommended as a "buy", yes?

    If so: Max (and Mike as well, seeing as how you've involved yourself in this discussion) can you truly say that you believe Dirty Harriet and Digital Bullet to be superior albums to both Step in the Arena and Daily Operation?!

  19. Since I did involve myself (and I love British sitcoms,) I will respond to you Mr. Partridge. I mainly said that just because there is a pattern of detractors (sometimes on the Reader Review posts themselves, [i.e. Lil Wayne's]) who often attack Max for things readers posted.

    With that being said, I do think Rah Digga's album was a bit underrated by the masses, and do like that it got some support, but will agree that Digital Bullet was meh at best.

    Gang Starr was a brilliant duo, and although I personally would recommend anyone buy those two albums (especially Daily Operation,) I can understand why someone wouldn't (hell, even The Source originally gave both of those albums 3.5/5 if I recall correctly.) Guru's monotonous flow can wear thin after a full project's worth. Max also has a bias towards Jay-Z and against Nas, and although I spin the opposite direction that spectrum, I like to see a backed up point of view on why one may not enjoy the things I like.

    If this blog's purpose was to just blindly accept albums considered classics (which I wouldn't consider anything Gang Starr put out to be,) then what is the point in reading it? There's no fun to be had in identical view points, that is why most relationships based on such fail miserably.

    I would think that Max would agree with you to purchase anything by Gang Starr over Kid Cudi's album though, if that is any consolation.

    Wow, I ended up writing a lot here...kind of feel bad the Pusha T post still has 0 comments.

  20. Alan PartridgeMarch 30, 2011

    ...And anyway, yes I shouldn't've attributed a review to someone who didn't
    write it. But, when you think about it; it isn't too relevant who wrote it
    really. As they're both on the same hip hop site edited by Max, so really the
    buck really stops with him with regards what material / information / opinions
    appearing on his site. Now I'm not saying that two people should believe exactly
    the same about one particular artist or album, but back in the day when you read
    reviews in hip hop magazines you would reasonably assume that an album that
    received 5/5 was superior to an album that only received 1/5, even if the two
    reviews were written by two completely different people (as they always were).
    The reviews should, give or take, be like minded with their views of good/bad
    hip hop to give the site/magazine continuity.

    What would be the the point of a site where one reviewer, for example, slated a
    release by Diddy, citing the reason he/she didn't like it being due to their
    believe that Diddy couldn't rap for shit, then a week later a second reviewer
    reviwed Diddy's next album, praising it because they believed Diddy was the best
    rapper they'd heard in their whole life? The answer is: There wouldn't be much

  21. Alan PartridgeMarch 31, 2011

    Thanks for the reply. Your response wasn't put up before I added my extra comment, so hence why my second comment kind of bares no relation to yours!

    I guess I was a little irked by the apparent sarcasm of your initial comment, but yes I agree I should've checked!

    Although I get the points you just mentioned, I still believe a review site like this should have some consistency of opinion, because whether Max intended it to be so or not; this site is a taste-maker for people looking to purchase some hip hop (especially younger kids looking to find out about older hip hop, by the looks of things). Now, I'm not a younger fan, I'm thirty (damn it I'm getting old), so I know for myself which older albums are good/bad, so I read those reviews just out of interest really. I tend to look for the newer albums by artists I haven't heard yet, but use Max's thoughts on albums I already know are good/bad to determine whether his views on newer albums are likely to be similar to mine or not. 

    Now a reviewer who rates Rah Digga's and RZA's albums over the two aforementioned Gang Starr albums; I have to be honest and say I question their credibility. Am I really that wrong to say that? Is that not a fair comment? Is there actually a single hip hop fan out there who seriously believes that rah Digga's (I'm not here to dispute whether it's underrated or not) and RZA's digital bullet are better and more worthy of a purchase than Step in the Arena and Daily Operation? Because there's no two ways about it - they're not. Gang Starr's two albums are brilliant pieces of hip hop, and I don't believe anyone who says otherwise knows what they're talking about. Not everything is "opinion". Sometimes people are just plain wrong, and I just felt it needed pointing out, if people looking at this site and using it as a guide.

    I would still be interested to read Max's response; answering the question: Do you seriously believe Rah Digga and RZA's albums to be better than the two Gang Starr albums?

    Finally Max, can I just say I'm not trying to be an asshole. I do realise that you must do this site as a hobby, and you don't HAVE to do it. And equally I DON'T have to read it. But I love hip hop too much to let potentially new hip hop fans (there are fewer and fewer these days) to go away from this site (misguidedly) believing that Step in the Arena and Daily Operation are hip hop albums not worth purchasing... Because they most definitely are!

    Oh, and Mike: Alan Partridge is the greatest comedy of all time, closely followed by The Office (original UK version) and Curb Your Enthusiasm! Let's not misguide people on comedy too!!

  22. Sorry this comment is late - I've had to deal with some other stuff in the real world, but I don't want anybody to think that I don't actually read these. Since this comment thread has veered wildly into the HOV lane, I'll leave some thoughts of my own.

    @alanpartridge (love the show, by the way) - am I actually saying that Rah Digga's album is better or more important than Step In The Arena? Of course not. Not even Rah Digga would say that.

    But these write-ups are a reflection of what I was thinking at the time I wrote them. When I listened to the two Gang Starr projects you mentioned, I personally felt that neither one held up as well as they did to me in the past. Conversely, when I wrote about Dirty Harriet, I found myself genuinely entertained. Don't make the mistake of reading all of these reviews as some sort of archaic ranking system: the only albums being compared are those by the same artists, and I didn't feel that Step In The Arena or Daily Operation held up as well as, say, Hard To Earn and The Ownerz (although Daily Operation has some banging tracks still, a point I made during the original post).

    Each review I write is chock-full of one hundred percent opinion, all of them mine. Music reviews are inherently subjective: it is impossible for me to actually tell you what to like. That's why the comment section exists: so readers can dispute what I say and offer their own thoughts, so other readers can draw their own conclusions. I can assure you that my write-ups have not discouraged anybody from buying either Gang Starr album mentioned, but they have directed some folks to other projects that they wouldn't have thought twice about otherwise.

    And I know you're not trying to be an asshole. That's what I'm here for.

    @Mike - thanks for the support. I also feel bad that Pusha T hasn't garnered many comments. That was a shock.

    Thanks for reading!

  23. Alan PartridgeApril 05, 2011

    Ha ha. Thanks for taking the time to reply, Max. You make complete sense with your response.

    I guess I'm just trying to champion that classic New York sound. I'm not a hater of other regional sounds, or new sub-genres that pop up. In fact I'm desperate to love something new that comes out, but it's hard work! I basically feel that if that New York sound (that Gang Starr embodies) dies then a big part of hip hop itself dies for me too.

    Maybe the day you reviewed Step in the Arena was a bad day for you, like a day when you stood on an upturned plug wearing only socks, or perhaps you accidently filled your car with diesel instead of petrol, or, heaven forbid, your cat committed suicide by trying to lick crumbs out of the toaster. If so, then this may have been a day when reviewing Portishead would have been more appropriate. Try listening to it again on a day when your team wins or something. It may just give you a fresh outlook!