Longevity isn't exactly a given in hip-hop, and that makes L. L. Cool J's career something of an anomaly. Not only has he been in the game for nine years now, he's managed to stay on top the whole time. Each of his previous albums have been million-sellers, from 1985's "Radio" to 1990's "Mama Said Knock You Out," and there's every reason to expect more of the same from his latest effort, "14 Shots to the Dome" (Def Jam/Columbia 53325, in stores today).
"14 Shots" is, in many ways, classic Cool J. It's both cutting edge and commercial, with tender, tuneful tracks cheek-by-jowl with tough, take-no-prisoners throw-downs. Some tracks, such as "Pink Cookies," find him in a playful mood; others, like "Crossroads," are pointedly political. Yet no matter what verbal pose L. L. strikes -- playful boyfriend, hard-core hip-hopper or canny commentator -- we have no trouble believing that he's still the same James Todd Smith as when he first hit the scene.
Except that back then, all L. L. needed was a beat, while now he needs to maintain his place in the pack. And though he doesn't exactly obsess over how old he is (remember, he's just 25), "14 Shots" is clearly concerned with how well his reputation has aged. Why else would the self-mocking "Funkadelic Relic" include the demand, "Admit that I'm the man, it's time for me to get my props?"
That L. L. deserves his props -- that is, proper respect -- should go without saying. But in hip-hop, you're only as good as your latest record, and no reputation can be maintained on the strength of an old sound. (Just ask Run-D.M.C.) So L. L. takes pains to keep his sound current here, having Lt. Stichie put a dance-hall twist on "Straight from Queens," and bringing in the Lords of the Underground to add extra flavor to "No Frontin' Allowed."
It's a great way to update his approach, and fits in well with more traditional tracks like the booming, blustery "How I'm Comin'." Likewise, the stripped-down rhythm arrangements, which emphasize the bass and beat to the exclusion of all else, lend the album a sound that's as lean and mean as anything EPMD's Hit Squad has dropped lately.
But is keeping up with the Joneses really the right course for L. L.? I don't think so. Listen to the way he rolls through the witty, pun-filled rhymes of "Pink Cookies"; you'll hear L. L. at his polysyllabic best. Switch over to "Soul Survivor" or "Ain't No Stoppin' This," and his can't-beat-me boasting seems forced and unimaginative compared to the convoluted cadences of Naughty Nature or Das Efx.
That's not to say the album is a failure, mind. But the next time L. L. takes "14 Shots," he'd better hit his target more often than he does here.