LL Cool J
G.O.A.T. Featuring James T. Smith, the Greatest of All Time (Def Jam 314 546 819)
If you want to understand how much LL Cool J towers over other rappers, look at his career. Not only has he lasted for 14 years - a positive eternity compared to other rappers - but he has enjoyed steady success along the way, selling consistently at platinum levels or higher. Simply put, there is no one in hip-hop who has been bigger for longer than Uncle L.
But if you want to understand why LL Cool J is so big, simply look at the title of his new album.
At first glance, "G.O.A.T." seems an unduly modest title. After all, to play the goat means to accept derision and demean one's standing. But as the subtitle tells us, that isn't quite what Cool J has in mind. Instead, the album's full title is "G.O.A.T. Featuring James T. Smith, the Greatest of All Time" - no small boast, even by rap standards.
Except that if anyone in hip- hop deserves to be considered the Greatest of All Time, it's James Todd Smith - a k a "Ladies Love Cool James," a k a LL Cool J.
It helps that he first made his mark at the tender age of 16, making hits at an age when most kids were simply dancing to the music. But he managed to stick with it, to boot. When he hit the road behind "Radio," his first album, he was opening for the likes of Run-D.M.C. and competing for airtime with the Fat Boys. Now, both of those acts are relegated to the oldies circuit, while Cool J continues to sit at the top of the charts.
Even better, his sound is not just current, but cutting-edge. "G.O.A.T." may not play into all of the latest trends in hip-hop, but it definitely knows what time it is. Some tracks come off all gangsta tough, like "Queens Is" or an unprintably titled collaboration with Snoop Doggy Dogg.
But other tracks convey their ferocity without having to indulge in rhetorical excess. "Take It Off," for instance, conveys its sensual intensity as much through the elastic energy of its hi-hat and guitar as through anything Cool J says, while "Ill Bomb" packs enough energy into its bass-driven groove that Uncle L could be rapping in Sanskrit and still get down.
But even though most of the raps find Cool J boasting about his prowess on the mike or between the sheets, there are tracks that take on a deeper level of social significance. Most impressive among these is "Homicide," which dryly recognizes the commonality of murder among poor blacks. "I don't mean this in a disrespectful way," rhymes Cool J, "But Columbine happens in the ghetto every day."
More to the point, Uncle L has enough heartbreaking stories on hand to make you wonder why the media doesn't make this tragedy seem as heart-wrenching as suburban teen trauma. Then again, if artists like LL Cool J got the kind of attention they deserved, maybe we'd see how wide and diverse - and enduring - a world American popular culture represents.
Instrumental (Angel 26919)
To paraphrase Gertrude Stein, a trance is a trance is a trance. Maybe that's why the chamber-music rendering of electronica hits on Acoustek's album "Instrumental" seems so appropriate. After all, if the Orb's "Little Fluffy Clouds" evokes the pulse music of Steve Reich, why shouldn't a quasi- classical combo like Acoustek make that connection explicit? Granted, Acoustek's mostly strings palette makes its pulsating arrangements seem a tad more monochromatic than the synth-based songs they ape. But there's an elasticity to these performances that makes even the most metronomic numbers seem less mechanical than the original versions.
Stronger (RCA 67908)
Simply mention the phrase "dance diva," and what comes to mind is vocal histrionics supported by technologically enhanced beats - hardly the most organic approach to dance music. Fortunately, Christine W. runs contrary to stereotype, offering a song that is not only more soulful than usual, but less reliant on pre-programmed beats. It helps that "Stronger" augments such club fodder as the title track and the disco-ish "Never Been Kissed" with more pop-oriented fare like her version of James Taylor's "Shower the People." But what pushes this disc past genre-based expectations is the sheer enthusiasm of Christine W.'s delivery.
Places (Warner Bros. 47693)
Jazz piano trios tend to rely more on the rhythm section - the pieces that make the group a trio - than on the piano itself. But even though Brad Mehldau fronts a stellar ensemble on "Places," his playmates have a tough time matching his insights or inventions. Granted, some of that may have to do with the arrangements, which emphasize his discursive improvisations over the more linear pulse of his accompanists. Then again, there are times when he simply abandons his mates and plunges on alone, offering a vision of jazz piano that relies more on counterpoint than any keyboard improviser since - I dunno, maybe J.S. Bach?