Remember this guy?

His name was LL Cool J and he was the hottest, most versatile rapper around. Capable of appealing to the hard rocks and the ladies, the pop fans and the underground cats. His songs had choruses and hooks, but he didn’t sacrifice lyrical agility for commercial success. And when hip-hop fans started to think that he was about to fall off back in the early Nineties, he hit them with the album of his career: “Mama Said Knock You Out”. He was arrogant yet humble, dangerous yet approachable, undeniably talented…

Rap legend LL Cool J. Photo by Daniel Mayer.

Rap legend LL Cool J. Photo by Daniel Mayer.

…However, since that triumphant fourth album, LL has been sliding down the slippery slope of suck. The first indication that something might be amiss was 1993’s “14 Shots to the Dome”. Not a bad album, but an obvious attempt to replicate the sound and success of “Mama Said…”. It didn’t fare well commercially. Although it was his 5th consecutive Platinum album (something then unheard of in rap circles), keep in mind that Gold and Platinum Awards honor units shipped, not units sold, and to date, “14 Shots” has only scanned about 580,000 units, falling far short of legitimate platty status.

LL briefly turned his attention to TV and film before returning with “Mr. Smith”, a commercial juggernaut that found him falling into the Puffy-esque trap of rapping over obvious loops of popular songs and padding them with guest artists. Hell, it worked. Despite the fact that the album was mediocre at best, “Mr. Smith” sold nearly 2 million copies and spawned 3 Top 10 pop singles (where prior to that album’s release, he only had one). However, that album’s success only seemed to accelerate his downfall. 1997’s “Phenomenon” was the last LL album to rate above average, as the personal touch of LL’s autobiographical lyrics (the album was a tie-in to his own book) made the glossy production tolerable. Since then, listening to LL albums has been the rap equivalent of listening to a 1990s Prince album. For every track that hints at past glories, there’s another two that are either phenomenally lazy or find the once legendary figure trying to shoehorn himself into current trends.

So, where does LL find himself today? Well, the man turned 40 this past January, which is jurassic by hip-hop standards. He’s unquestionably far removed from street culture, having gone Hollywood well over a decade ago. His last two albums-the ill-advised Timbaland collabo “The DEFinition” and 2006’s guest-star mix and match debacle “Todd Smith”-have been garbage, with maybe 5 decent songs between them. Upon announcing the release of his upcoming album, “Exit 13” (an album that’s been two years in the making), LL mentioned that he would be working closely with 50 Cent. Granted, Fitty has business acumen, sure. But does LL really need to be taking career advice from Curtis Jackson? I think not.

LL has also made several comments critical of the way his last album was handled, with the majority of his barbs being held for then-label president Jay-Z. “Todd Smith” was certified Gold by the RIAA, but has officially scanned less than 350,000 units. In other words, “Tha Carter III” tripled the lifetime sales of LL’s last album in it’s first week. And with good reason. The album sucked. Every song on the album featured a stunt-cast guest artist, with the list of collaborators ranging from Mary J. Blige and Jamie Foxx to Juelz Santana and Freeway to gospel duo Mary Mary. First single “Control Myself” was an uncomfortably dance-floor aimed Jermaine Dupri production featuring the questionable singing talents of Jennifer Lopez. It was a mediocre choice for a single and STILL was one of the 3 or 4 best songs on the album. If LL should blame anyone for “Todd Smith”‘s lack of success, it should be himself for making a shitty record, not Jay-Z.

A couple of months ago, a teaser single called “Cry”, which featured Lil’ Mo, hit the airwaves. It (deservedly) flopped. The latest single, “Baby”, which features The-Dream, proves that LL hasn’t learned his lesson yet. Everything about it is generic, from the beat to the lyrics to the video. LL is obviously an intelligent, multi-faceted man. Why is he, at his age and with his success, appealing to the lowest common denominator? It’s quite disheartening to see many legendary artists in this age range, particularly in the hip-hop & R&B genres, trying desperately to retain their link to a youth audience and embarrassing themselves in the process (paging Janet Jackson, Madonna and to a lesser degree New Edition and New Kids on the Block). Whatever happened to artistry trumping stardom?

A recent Billboard article doesn’t give me much hope that LL has righted the ship? First off, who makes 19 track albums nowadays? Secondly, when your list of collaborators includes Fat Joe & Sheek Louch, how good can your record possibly be? (I am seriously racking my brain trying to think of a good album not entitled “Capital Punishment” that features Fat Joe). There is the chance that the man who once screamed “I’m Bad!” and made us all believe it might surprise us with some heat on his 13th album (a rap milestone that must be celebrated), but given what I’ve seen and heard so far, things are not looking good.