Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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L.L. Cool J

  • Radio [Def Jam, 1985] B+
  • Bigger and Deffer [Def Jam, 1987] C+
  • Walking With a Panther [Def Jam, 1989] A-
  • Mama Said Knock You Out [Def Jam, 1990] A
  • 14 Shots to the Dome [Def Jam/Columbia, 1993] B
  • Mr. Smith [Def Jam, 1994] Choice Cuts
  • All World [Def Jam, 1996] A
  • Phenomenon [Def Jam, 1997] ***
  • G.O.A.T. Featuring James T. Smith--The Greatest of All Time [Def Jam, 2000] Neither

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Radio [Def Jam, 1985]
Rick Rubin's thwonging minimalism and Cool J's proud polysyllables are fresh, def, and so forth. From the daring little piano hook of "I Can Give You More" to Russell Simmons's motormouth prevarications on "That's a Lie" to the humble love-man details of "I Want You," this is the most engaging and original rap album of the year. But the post-Run-D.M.C. school does betray a penchant for what you might call bourgeois individualism. Laying off messages is one thing, but the Hollis crew rarely projects much community or solidarity either. Which sometimes leaves a solo artist alone with his DJ and his fine self. B+

Bigger and Deffer [Def Jam, 1987]
Like the pop-metal egotists he resembles every which way but white, J proves that there's something worse than a middle-class adolescent who's gotta be a big shot this instant--the same adolescent the instant he becomes a big shot. Overrated though it was, the debut had guts, spritz, musical integrity, and Rick Rubin. Breakthrough though it may be, the follow-up has a swelled head, a swollen dick, received beats, and quotes from Berry, Brown, and the Moonglows that confuse me. Could it be that the planet existed before he brought it to fruition? C+

Walking With a Panther [Def Jam, 1989]
From self-centered teenager to man with a mission: "I hope to prove to the world that I can reach all materialistic goals and be young, black and legal." On the cover he and his panther wear gold while his three women sport tight dresses and Moet, with not an Africa medallion in sight, but call it part of a larger strategy: justifying conspicuous consumption with conspicuous production. His output totals 16 tracks for 68 minutes on a single vinyl LP, with three extra on CD and the superhard B-side "Jack the Ripper" completing an 85-minute, 20-track cassette. Though one of the ballads is a killer, the other two are, well, changes of pace; the (vinyl) side-closers make "Jack the Ripper" sound slow; the arrogant sense of humor comes with a snide, irritating, completely original laugh. My standard response to such overkill is to wish someone had boiled it down to the great album it contains, but with this egocentric, hedonistic, workaholic materialist, I'll take it all--definitely including the nonvinyl "Change Your Ways," which preaches compassion to the young, black, and legal competition. A-

Mama Said Knock You Out [Def Jam, 1990]
This isn't groundbreaking like Nation of Millions, but it shouldn't be pigeonholed as a terrific rap record. It's an exceptionally consistent and entertaining record, period, on a par with Goo or Freedom or Rock 'n' Roll or maybe even Sign "O" the Times. Hilariously unreconstructed, it takes shit from no one and gives shit only in the most high-spirited way--the targets it disses hardest are Mike Tyson, whose mama would say knock the mother out if the poor fucker had a mama, and famed rapper L.L. Cool J, a/k/a Cheesey Rat. It's avowedly street, but star street, voicing sympathy and solidarity rather than bullshitting about where he comes from after five years somewhere else. Marley Marl and assorted live human beings jam into the mix. Great music, great vocals, great lyrics, from beginning to end, by a proud pro with something to prove. A

14 Shots to the Dome [Def Jam/Columbia, 1993]
Proof we didn't need that his talent is as phat as an elefant's phart and his brain is the size of a pea. Only it isn't his brain--it's his ability to comprehend contradiction. Like Michael Ivey, of all people, he flunked his follow-up because he can't figure out how to put success and rap together. Where Ivey (or the Basehead "character," ha ha) takes his dorky confusion out on women, L.L.'s sexism is love-man suave--his "It's so relaxin'" after a piece of pussy gets off in the back of his Jeep is a rare moment of grace. Instead he slings the gangsta metaphors and handgun memories in the vain hope that the guys hanging out by the check-cashing place will think he's hard. But from the look of the crotch he's grabbing in several photos, as of now he just ain't. B

Mr. Smith [Def Jam, 1994]
"Doin It" Choice Cuts

All World [Def Jam, 1996]
He can be better than his singles, but more often he's been worse, and no other rapper has maintained the hit-making knack so long. The coups are the sex raps "Back Seat" and "Doin It." I must counsel against aspiring to his superstud fantasy. But it's a measure of his pop credibility that I suspect he could be telling some sort of truth. Oohh. A

Phenomenon [Def Jam, 1997]
astride the world as R-rated pop staple ("Father," "Nobody Can Freak You") ***

G.O.A.T. Featuring James T. Smith--The Greatest of All Time [Def Jam, 2000] Neither