We're past the halfway mark, folks: my James Todd Smith experiment, in which I review each album in LL Cool J's catalog in reverse chronological order, has finally reached the point where the transition from the old school to the new sound officially occurred. Today I bring you LL's sixth album, Mr. Smith, generally considered in Blogland to be the last "good" album Cool James ever released, for some reason.
Mr. Smith is an album that owes its entire existence to a hot guest performance LL dropped on Craig Mack's star-studded remix to his hit "Flava In Ya Ear". After listeners got over their initial "Huh?" phase when Cool James first popped up on a track alongside the likes of Mack, The Notorious B.I.G. (with a scene-stealing guest verse), Busta Rhymes, Rampage, and, um, Puff Daddy (since it was kind of like Grandpa agreeing to drive all of the kids to the movies), he spit a verse chock-full of nonsensical catchphrases while staring at the ass of the chick dancing in front of him during the video shoot; as a form of penance, he recites random bars from that cameo appearance all throughout Mr. Smith, mostly at hilariously inopportune times.
After the poor performance of his previous effort, 14 Shots To The Dome (which will eventually come next, so mark your calendars!), LL Cool J redoubled his efforts in Hollywood, landing a starring role in the NBC sitcom In The House. However, unlike what my memory tried to trick me into thinking earlier, he never took any real hiatus from the rap game; Mr. Smith was released (by Def Jam Records, naturally) only a couple of years after his last project, so it isn't as though he had ever been given the opportunity to fade out from the page. Unlike today, where he hasn't really released anything since Exit 13, since he's too busy toplining a CBS police procedural or something.
Mr. Smith is an album crafted especially for the ladies, although Uncle L tried to throw the dudes a bone with some of his goofy gangsta raps. He recruited production team The Trackmasters to handle most of the album, turning to names such as Rashad Smith and Easy Mo Bee for the rest. I had forgotten that Easy Mo Bee had a production credit on here, so I'm now officially a bit more intrigued to listen to this album again. Anyway, the guest list was kept to a minimum, with only the final track going all out with what passed for an A-list cast back in 1995. Since this was the mid-1990s, Def Jam convinced director Hype Williams to direct all of the videos released from the project, if I'm not mistaken, and the end result was an overly radio-friendly affair that sold well in stores and kept the label profitable for another fiscal year.
1. THE INTRO (SKIT)
I don't think there's a single person on this planet who would ever imagine LL Cool James as a cowboy in the Old West, so his lame-ass attempt at starring in his own Sergio Leone-inspired spaghetti western falls on deaf ears. Especially as this rap album intro has fuck-all to do with this being a rap album.
2. MAKE IT HOT
The first actual song on Mr. Smith doesn't do much to prove that LL Cool J really needed to return to music after cleaning up Debbie Allen's house and trying not to make a move on Maia Campbell back when she was cute. The Trackmasters instrumental is so bland that it won't appeal to either sex, and Cool James can't decide on what kind of song he wanted to write, attempting to court the love-rap crowd and the hardcore hip hop heads in this failed marriage, bitter divorce, and messy custody battle of a track. This shit was awful. Moving on...
3. HIP HOP
LL's tale about the "globe of the world" (as opposed to the myriad other globes that he could be talking about) he received in the mail is the first of many instances of random, bizarre imagery on Mr. Smith, so for those of you unsure if you care enough to follow along, at least that will give you something to look for in each track. "Hip Hop" is supposed to be LL Cool J's love letter to, well, hip hop, but this lame-ass Trackmasters instrumental makes a mockery of all the artists our host lists as his favorites, as does the crooning on the chorus. I don't doubt that LL still loves the art form that first positioned him in the spotlight, but was there a reason that he would agree to release something so fucking weak as a tribute?
4. HEY LOVER (FEAT. BOYZ II MEN)
In the interest of full disclosure, I present the following embarrassing tidbit about myself: I used to really really like "Hey Lover", a track that was considered to be LL's official comeback after the failure of his previous effort 14 Shots To The Dome. When Cool James is on his game, as he is on here, his last great love rap, he sounds untouchable, and that confidence translates to big sales and many swooning women. Predictably, it falls way short today, and I find it almost impossible to sit through without giggling, since our host's earnestness causes "Hey Lover" to delve into self-parody, especially as this Trackmasters beat was engineered from only the purest queso. I'm not ashamed to admit that I still enjoy the chorus, though, but that's because, like everyone else, I love early Boyz II Men. So there.
5. DOIN' IT (FEAT. LESHAUN)
I never noticed before that this song is nearly five minutes long. Who signed off on that shit? Anyway, Rashad Smith's beat holds up surprisingly well for something as simple as "Doin' It" sounds, and the back-and-forth between LL and guest star LeShaun is relatively chaste today, but is dirty enough for listeners to still wonder just how in the fuck Def Jam thought it would be a good idea to release it as a single. Since this was an actual hit, I suppose Def Jam now wants a cookie or something. Unlike "Hey Lover", there's nothing embarrassing about listening to "Doin' It" today (except for maybe LeShaun's fake orgasm at the end), since it was always goofy as shit.
6. LIFE AS...
I have a couple of problems with that song title. For one, the chorus on this track clearly states that the "life of a killer is scandalous" and/or "dangerous", so shouldn't it be called "Life Of...", or, had Def Jam not pussied out of the whole thing, "Life Of A Killer"? Not that Cool James would ever be mistaken for a hired gun or a homicidal maniac, mind you, no matter how many times he talks about his guns on here. Secondly, the title "Life As"... reminds me of the comic Love Is, which, as Homer Simpson once so delicately put it, is "about two naked eight-year-olds who are married". Easy Mo Bee's beat is surprisingly halfway decent in a way that Mr. Smith just hasn't been up to this point, as it refuses to cater to the R&B crowd, but Uncle L is hardly convincing in the role of a threatening rapper: even his violent bars contain too much joy to be taken seriously.
7. I SHOT YA (FEAT. KEITH MURRAY)
I'm still surprised to this day that LL included a song with that specific title on Mr. Smith, because (a) he was already at the point where his female fanbase outnumbered the guys almost eleventy billion to one, and (b) the previous track was too scared to reveal itself as the pseudo-thug rap it dreamed of being. Anyway, "I Shot Ya" is the "controversial" song on the album, labeled as such because it is considered a direct attack on 2Pac (and its title also seems to answer the question The Notorious B.I.G. first posed on his non-album classic "Who Shot Ya?", which was also allegedly aimed Pac's way), and Pac took so much offense that he actually retaliated. LL's bars are battle rap-worthy but hardly convincing as "thug rap", but Cool James sounds as fluid as ever over a surprisingly hardcore Trackmasters loop (even though at one point he threatens to suck all of the color out of cartoon characters, so this may all be some sort of lucid dream). LL brings in Keith Murray during the chorus, but all he can manage to do is repeat some of our host's bars from "I'm Bad" like the true LL stan he is, so he's kind of wasted on here. But it all acts as foreshadowing for the "I Shot Ya" remix, so that's nice.
8. MR. SMITH
This was just terrible. That's all I got.
9. NO AIRPLAY
The first minute of this track is devoted to an interlude where our host appears to be hosting a party in the vocal booth, allowing some of his guests to give shout-outs before taking over the mic and everything takes a turn for the surreal (at one point Cool James that he ran into "two midgets" the other day who proceeded to refer to him as "the motherfucking man"). Then the actual song kicks in, a heavily-censored affair produced by Chad Elliot and built around a vocal sample taken from LL's "The Boomin' System". There is no explanation provided as to why all of the curse words are backmasked, unless LL was trying to comment on how ridiculous and incoherent most rap music would sound if all of the adult language were removed, so it's impossible for anyone to actually get into this track, which is too bad, since the beat actually wasn't bad.
10. LOUNGIN' (FEAT. TERRI & MONICA)
When your rap song is built around a sample from Al B. Sure!'s "Nite & Day", there are only so many directions you can go with it: predictably, Cool James goes with his default setting, "impressing the ladies in the audience". The lyrics are all ridiculous, because James didn't really need to try anymore at this point, but Rashad Smith's instrumental is enjoyable as fuck, mainly because I love the original Al B. Sure! song, as does everyone else in the world with a soul. Overall, this isn't that great, but thanks to the beat, it blows the remix out of the water. (More on that later.)
11. HOLLIS TO HOLLYWOOD
Cool James uses the intro to "Hollis To Hollywood" to complain about the use of metaphors in hip hop (in an especially clever turn of phrase, he refers to all other rappers as "metaphorical freaks or something"). This apparently upsets him a great deal, as he then uses the song itself to (a) give the listener a three-verse performance, dropping the names of films into his bars like a low-grade GZA/Genius, and (b) give the listener some more of the most surreal and bizarre imagery in a hip hop song since whatever Kool Keith recorded this morning during his second bowl of Lucky Charms. (Happy St. Patrick's Day!) Just listen to the track: you'll easily be able to pick out what I'm talking about. I found it very strange that LL Cool J would essentially act as an activist for ignorance in rap music, since that attitude is detrimental to the longevity of the art form he claims to love so goddamn much. You've all heard how ignorance has impacted our chosen genre: just turn on the radio right now and tell me you aren't appalled.
12. GOD BLESS
A study in contrasts that I believe everyone will agree just sounds fucking awful. Rashad Smith had the bright idea to combine what sounds like an alternate version of the drums from The Honeydrippers's "Impeach The President" with a looped-up sample from Vicki Anderson's "Message From The Soul Sisters" (also used on, among other things, Lil' Kim's later "No Time"), and the two elements never quite meet each other halfway. Hell, they spend the duration of the song's length running as far away from each other as two nonhuman personified musical samples ever could. Also not meshing: LL's thugged-out lyrics and the title of this song. Also, including a vocal sample of the phrase "get retarded" on a song called "God Bless" sends out so many mixed messages that it will hurt your head to count each and every one: you'd be better off skipping to the next track, which you should have done five minutes ago.
13. GET DA DROP ON 'EM
Forget about the two different "I Shot Ya" tracks: "Get Da Drop On 'Em" is clearly LL's attempt to cater to the street audience, as it contains what is easily the most violent Cool James performance I've heard in a long time (or at least ever since I started this project). Does he sound convincing yet? Unsurprisingly, no, especially when a poor choice of words during the third verse implies that he will dismantle a "bitch n---a" by "dick[ing] ya down in front of everyone", which makes the song sound even more like a practical joke being played on LL Cool J, who will apparently read anything from the teleprompter, Ron Burgundy-style. (He also introduces yet another definition for the phrase "make it hot".) And so.
14. PRELUDE (SKIT)
Well, that happened.
15. I SHOT YA (REMIX) (FEAT. KEITH MURRAY, PRODIGY, FAT JOE, & FOXY BROWN)
James Todd Smith saves the best song for last, bringing listeners the quasi-infamous remix to "I Shot Ya", featuring Keith Murray and Prodigy (of Mobb Deep) taking thinly-veiled potshots at each other, an underage Foxy Brown attempting to entice the listener into some statutory rape, and Large Joseph trying his best to maintain his underground presence and form while heeding the mainstream's calls, all while LL himself lords over the proceedings as the hip hop legend he technically is, murdering all of the challengers and even managing to come up with yet another definition for the phrase "make it hot". Since none of his guests take any shots at our host, "I Shot Ya (Remix)" isn't nearly as fun as "4,3,2,1", but that doesn't make it bad in the least bit, especially toward the end, where LL promises to call out his enemies by name "not this time, but next time", which apparently never happened (I guess he became too focused on Canibus and Wyclef Jean). Thankfully, each rapper is in his or her element, as this celebration of New York chugs away over the same Trackmasters beat that propelled LL's original take into the spotlight. I wish Prodigy's verse hadn't been censored, but this was still a great way to go out.
FINAL THOUGHTS: Mr. Smith is impossible to listen to from start to finish today. I have a strong suspicion that all of the bloggers out there who hold Mr. Smith in high regard today haven't bothered to listen to the album in at least fifteen years, because a lot of this is fucking awful. LL Cool J spends the majority of the project trying to convince the listener that he isn't all about love raps, all while trying to steal your girlfriend away from you every chance he gets, and you can only do that so many times before people start to get annoyed. His hardcore efforts mostly go unnoticed, except for when our host aligns himself with some of New York's hottest rappers at the time (on "I Shot Ya (Remix)"...don't fool yourselves, Keith Murray, Prodigy, Foxy Brown, and Fat Joe were all extremely popular at the time); for the most part, the man sounds like one of the worst actors on the big screen. A far cry from what Cool James is able to accomplish when he puts his mind to it, Mr. Smith has aged worse than than cheese you accidentally left in the crisper drawer for the past twenty years.
BUY OR BURN? Burn this one. Mr. Smith doesn't hold up nearly as well as the hip hop apologists would like you to believe. But the great tracks on here still sound really fucking good.
BEST TRACKS: "I Shot Ya (Remix)"; "I Shot Ya"
B-SIDES THAT AREN'T NECESSARY TO TRACK DOWN BUT STILL MERIT A MENTION:
LOUNGIN' (WHO DO YA LUV) (REMIX) (FEAT. TOTAL)
For the fourth single from Mr. Smith, LL decided to remix "Loungin'", and if by "remix" you actually mean "release an entirely different song that has only the abso-fucking-lutely least to do with the original source material", then you're in luck. Cool James abandons the Al B. Sure! melody in favor of some radio-friendly Trackmasters cotton candy that is so nondescript with its presence that it may as well be an unmarked white van, and the chorus, provided by Bad Boy girl group Total, consists of only two spoken lines repeated with the enthusiasm of a teenage boy working the drive-thru at Taco Bell. LL Cool J may be the king of the love rap, but even a monarch can fall off of his throne and land face first in a cream pie every once in a while.
This b-side to the "Loungin'" remix is confusingly labeled as the "LP Version" even though "Summer Luv" doesn't appear on any of LL's actual albums. Also, it's censored, so it's hardly what I would consider to be an "LP Version" of anything. Anyway, it's too bad this song isn't on Mr. Smith, as it's actually quite entertaining, with Cool James beating Rashad Smith's catchy instrumental into submission, and that last statement was somehow supposed to be a compliment. You should look to "Summer Luv" if you're not entirely convinced that LL Cool J ever knew how to rap in the first place: his flow on here is indicative of his many years in the game as a seasoned veteran. Also adding to the overall confusion: Def Jam commissioned a video for this song, one where Hype Williams basically predated YouTube fan clips by taking a bunch of footage of LL from all of his other videos and mashing them all together while Cool James performs the track by himself, to promote the release of our host's first greatest hits package All World; "Summer Luv" doesn't appear on that compilation either.