Well, here's something you don't see every day: a "lost" album from one of hip hop's biggest names, reportedly released by the artist himself while in a tiff with his record label. This kind of shit happens all the time with smaller labels and underground artists who may not have the business savvy or the resources to protect themselves otherwise, but this isn't supposed to happen when you're signed to Def Jam, one of the most dominant hip hop labels in existence even today. And it's definitely not supposed to happen when you are James Todd Smith, better known as LL Cool J.
So the unofficial story is as follows: LL Cool James was recording a follow-up to his fifth album, 1993's 14 Shots To The Dome, the project I'm avoiding because of today's post. He was trying to find the right balance of salty and sweet, wanting to reach both halves of the population with a combination of aggressive rhymes and love raps, especially since his previous effort was a commercial disappointment. Unfortunately, LL Cool J was signed to a major label, Def Jam, and Def Jam isn't in the business of releasing albums that are destined for failure (unless you happen to be The Roots), so they forced him to pretty much scrap everything and start over anew.
Now Def Jam obviously made the right choice, because when backed into a corner, LL came up with Mr. Smith, a double-platinum success story that featured both "Hey Lover" and "I Shot Ya", thereby hitting both of our host's primary demographics. But what that story leaves out is the fact that Cool James never destroyed the masters for his original sixth album, and instead eventually leaked them to an outfit calling themselves On Top Records. On his instruction (allegedly), On Top released a vinyl-only album entitled Double L Cools Down, with the artist credited as Double L and all of the writing and production attributed to "Mr. Smith". Interweb forums prove that Double L Cools Down isn't especially difficult to find, but of course you have to know what you're looking for, so this still counts as an "unreleased" project, since LL Cool J has publicly disavowed any knowledge of the bootleg.
Double L Cools Down can easily be seen as the bridge between 14 Shots To The Dome and Mr. Smith, with its (unmastered and oftentimes poor-quality) tracks vacillating back and forth between the ladies and the gentlemen in the audience, especially those who happen to live in New York. Unfortunately, the actual production credits are difficult to come by, as it's pretty obvious that LL Cool J didn't produce everything on here himself, but for what it's worth. Double L Cools Down serves as a peek at what an artist is capable of doing when he (wrongfully) believes he still has final cut.
1. INTRO (MR. SMITH PARTY)
Double L Cools Down kicks off with the same party intro that sounded out of place when it kicked off Mr. Smith's “No Airplay”. This rap album intro is one of only a few connecting threads between the two projects, though. As such, anyone who is already familiar with “No Airplay” doesn't need to listen to this intro: you've already heard all of the jokes.
2. MR. SMITH
Essentially the same song as what eventually appeared as the title track on Mr. Smith, except with a different beat (Chyskillz's take on the material was actually a remix of this original instrumental) and with the reference to Cool James being “on some O.J. shit, throats is gettin' slit” not being censored. Yes, I realize it's weird knowing that LL Cool J says things that sometimes are never heard by the general public due to their controversial nature: a guy who stars on a CBS primetime procedural can hardly be considered “controversial”, right? But 1994-1995 was a much different time. Anyway, this wasn't bad: it's better than the officially-released version, anyway.
3. DEAR LOVER
Yes, that song title implies that this should be a rough cut of Mr. Smith's Boyz-II-Men-featured “Hey Lover”, but this is actually an entirely different take on the same material (read: it's a love rap). The beat isn't bad, and Cool James sounds pretty game throughout his verses, even though the track struggles to find a consistent tone: LL veers from making love to his girl to bragging about how he doesn't brag about “put[ting] [his] business in the streets” (even though he's boasting about fucking his lady friend at the same time, and I have it on good authority that he recorded this song in a vocal booth set up on a street corner set up next to a hot dog cart) to demanding that the ladies (who don't realize that this song even exists, mind you) keep “shaking that ass”. What the hell just happened here?
4. PUMP MY SHIT
Part of my problem with Mr. Smith was the severe tonal shifts, LL's attempt at being all things to all audiences (there wasn't any real reason for “Hey Lover” and “I Shot Ya” to share album space, for instance). “Pump My Shit” proves that was Cool J's plan all along, with its braggadocio clashing directly with the obvious song for the ladies that “Dear Lover” tried to be. As such, it isn't bad (I actually laughed when LL demanded that you sing his theme song), but it sounds out of place. This song should have ended up on a mixtape or as a b-side or something, as it would probably sound better within the proper context.
Cool James loved his line about jumping into a football stadium filled with cotton candy (imagery that is comparable to what Kool Keith can come up with during any given Sunday breakfast) so much, he borrowed that sentiment from this interlude and shoehorned it into Mr. Smith's “Hollis To Hollywood”. Those of you two who felt that line was entirely disconnected from the rest of the track now have been proven correct. Vindication! Moving on...
Yet another song that can't decide what it wants to be when it grows up. LL Cool J's shit-talking fits the harder-than-expected instrumental, but the hook will only appeal to the ladies in the audience, most of whom won't give a shit about the rest of the track. If you erased the chorus (and, I suppose, changed the title of the song by default), “Candyman” becomes a rather enjoyable excursion into early radio-friendly thugged-out hip hop, a Frankengenre that shouldn't exist, and yet thrives today. It isn't the greatest work James Todd has ever done or anything, but I've heard much worse, especially most of the late-period stuff in his catalog.
7. SET IT OFF NEW YORK
Laced with so much New York straight talk that I was halfway expecting Cool James to Britta the whole thing by pronouncing a popular breakfast treat as “baggels”. Absofuckinglutely nothing on “Set It Off New York” sounds authentic or genuinely Big Apple-esque: for all I know, LL recorded this shit in Los Angeles on a day off from his In The House NBC press obligations. The beat is cheesy generic, and our host hasn't figured out that his home state will only listen to his command to “set it off” if it doesn't sound forced. Thank you, come again.
8. NEW YORK MENTALITY
The fuck? Two songs dedicated to his home base in a row? Double L lets a (misguided) skit play out for over a minute before he finally decides that the listener has earned the right to hear the actual track, though. Granted, this beat sounds much more New York-esque than whatever the fuck the last song was going for, but it still wasn't very memorable. Cool James sounds a but too assured on here: the track could have used a slightly unhinged, hardcore flow in order to best get the “New York Mentality” concept across. Not a terrible song by any means (well, the hook was bland, but what were you expecting?), but it also wasn't good enough for anyone to give a damn. It was nice to hear LL name some of his favorite artists throughout his verses, though.
9. 2 MINUTE WARNING TO SHAKE THAT ASS
I'm concerned that Cool James felt the need to fit so many interludes (including the intro) onto an album that is only eleven tracks long. This extended skit (really two unrelated skits combined) is almost entirely useless, thanks to its piss-poor voice acting and editing, aside from the actual music playing in the background, where LL Cool J tried to channel Luther Campbell for a catchphrase-laden booty song that sounds much more fascinating than everything else on Double L Cools Down. Yeah, it'll remind you of when Chris Rock and Prince Paul came up with their “Table Dance”, but it sounded catchy regardless. Too bad Mr. Smith never followed up on that.
10. BRING ON THE MO' AND HO'S
It's pretty easy to see why “Bring On The Mo' And Ho's” doesn't officially exist within LL Cool J's canon: the beat uses the same Joe Sample “In All My Wildest Dreams” sample that both dominates and defines the album version of 2Pac's “Dear Mama”. Which makes a chorus about drinking and fucking sound completely inappropriate. Cool James sounds confident enough, but it's hard to decipher just who this song was written for. Sigh.
11. FOREVER YOURS
Double L Cools Down ends with a strange spoken-word interlude where LL reads what is ostensibly a love letter to an unknown female over a boring-as-shit instrumental. Cool James sounds so weirdly sincere that he comes across as the PG-rated Keith Thornton, with the non-sequiturs to match. (I'm sure nobody's ever made this many allusions to Kool Keith during an LL Cool J album review before. Which makes me pretty terrific, if you really think about it.) This was a goddamn goofy way to end, well, anything. Over five minutes for this shit, James? Seriously?
SHOULD YOU TRACK IT DOWN? Double L Cools Down is an interesting-enough curiosity piece and nothing more. Absolutely nothing on here would have improved Mr. Smith in any way, shape, or form: in fact, I'm kind of glad Double L Cools Down exists (even in this unofficial form) just so I know that LL Cool J had a forum to get his less-successful concepts out of his system. Lyrically, James sounds exactly the same, which is fine by me: the guy has lasted as long as he has in our chosen genre because of his confidence behind the mic. The beats on Double L Cools Down don't really grab your attention, but a couple of them sneak into your subconscious, which was a pleasant surprise. But the marriage of those two elements barely holds together, and the lyrics obviously cheated on the instrumentals with producers that possessed deeper pockets and paid them more attention, since none of the songs on Mr. Smith sound anything like these. Overall, Double L Cools Down is exciting in a “you weren't ever supposed to hear these songs” kind of way, but vaulted rap songs are typically kept locked away for a reason. Such is life.
B-SIDE TO CHECK OUT: “FUCK THIS SHIT”
Cool James recorded and quickly vaulted this dis track aimed at his label, Def Jam, and, well, the man was pretty fucking angry, obviously. Over an instrumental that seems to have been informed by Gang Starr's “Code Of The Streets” (at least during the hook), our host takes his label to task, but not before getting through two verses of seemingly innocuous shit-talking. It's only during the third stanza that the listener figures out why he's so damn upset, threatening to “bootleg [his] own shit” if he has to, which, well, that's probably why I had something to write about today. He then chews out his label even further through his ad-libs on the outro. Now this isn't a great song or anything, but it's an interesting one, and it proves that not everything is sunshine and lollipops even when you're one of the prized assets at your own label. The fact that LL shelved “Fuck This Shit” is proof that he just had to get something off his chest but didn't want his business in the streets: the fact that it leaked is just because the folks in our chosen genre are fucking crafty when it comes to getting things they're not supposed to have.
B SIDE TO CHECK OUT: “YEAR OF THE HIP HOP” (K-DEF FEAT. LL COOL J)
Recorded in 1994 and famously discovered in 2011 behind a radiator, K-Def's “Year Of The Hip Hop” is a fascinating remnant of a lost era in our chosen genre, as Cool James destroys the instrumental, constructed with ESG's “UFO”, which, as you all know, means that the beat bangs. Apparently LL agreed to record this because he had always wanted to rap over that breakbeat, but “Year Of The Hip Hop”, a celebration of his dominance in this here rap game, was never released (see: "lost behind the radiator”), so Cool James opted to go in a different direction, and Mr. Smith / Double L Cools Down were born. Anyone who finds it difficult to believe that LL Cool J was once a formidable rhyme spitter should check this out: that way, when you sit down with your grandmother to watch the next all-new episode of NCIS: Los Angeles, you two will have something to talk about.
RELATED VIDEO: "NO AIRPLAY (UNEDITED)" - from Mr. Smith
(Just in case you two wanted to hear all of the curses, since the album version is edited.)
Catch up with some other LL Cool J stuff by clicking here.
Catch up with some other LL Cool J stuff by clicking here.