After 17 years, 10 albums, and countless collaborations, James Todd Smith is still the household name nobody knows. With 10, his 10th album released under the name LL Cool J, Smith shows a maturing market that he is still capable of going through the motions, but the flair with which he made his name (whichever one that is) known is dwindling.
Since his first single, 1985’s “I Can’t Live Without My Radio,” Smith has managed to ride the wave of commercial rap and stay credible. From the spirited rap-rock days of his debut, Radio, to the more gangsta-oriented Bigger and Deffer, through his last and most abrasive release G.O.A.T.: Greatest Of All Time, somehow he has never sounded out of place capitalizing on the latest trends. Whether it’s because he fills his albums with hot-for-the-moment guest producers or because his talent is timeless is debatable, but accusations that his time has passed are surprisingly uncommon.
Yet with each new release Smith runs the risk of sounding like just another generic artist, indistinguishable from the stars he influenced. With 10, that risk has become a reality: he doesn’t sound out of place, but he certainly doesn’t sound innovative either, and on an alarming number of 10’s tracks he struggles to sound good at all.
There’s nothing wrong with Smith as a rapper or lyricist; though he essentially ignores the playful ribaldry of earlier songs like “Big Ole Butt” and the confrontational thuggery of songs like “I Shot Ya,” he offers enough respectable wordplay to suggest that he can still rhyme with the pros. The problem is that without the lighthearted prurience or dangerous edge that made past hits stand out, many of 10’s songs sound like tired rehashings of the generic and vapid pop-rap from the last “Now That’s What I Call Music!” compilation.
Like earlier albums, 10 boasts a wide range of song types, each of which highlights a different LL Cool J persona. Many of them are effective: the harder sound of “10 Million Stars” and “Fa Ha” works well, despite the latter’s one-note backdrop and unfortunate use of a Hall and Oates sample. Meanwhile, “Paradise” and the soulful closer “Big Mama” are fanciful and gentle without being embarrassing. In a way unexplored elsewhere on 10, the production on these tracks takes a back seat to Smith’s staccato flow, and subdued choruses by Amerie and Dru Hill help recall the glory days of his sentimental side.
But the well-done tracks are spread thinly between cloying ones that bear unneeded kinships to the styles of Cash Money Millionaires and Nelly’s St. Lunatics, with the disjointed rhythms and monotonous samples that continue to wear the sound of today’s pop-rap threadbare. Take “Lollipop,” which could be one of Smith’s standard naughty booty jams if not for its insipid Mariah Carey-esque chorus, the outlandishly smoove “U Should” with its slowness-mistaken-for-sensuality backdrop, or the trivial “After School,” featuring an equally trivial P. Diddy.
10’s most conspicuous link to modern rap is the pervasive influence of the Neptunes, whose ubiquitous rap-rock hybrid formula of picked guitars and brushed drums makes songs like “Amazin'” and “Clockin’ G’s” sound like almost any other Top 40 hip-hop song. Surprisingly, even beyond their familiarity, the Neptunes-produced tracks tend to be among the worst on the album. From the busy “Luv U Better,” which has a groove so repetitive and typical that it is 10’s first single, to the awful “Niggy Nuts,” their once masterful but now overused input does nothing but burden the record.
So 10 doesn’t sound innovative, but is it fair to say that LL Cool J ever really did? What’s frustrating about 10 is its refusal to commit to any sound of Smith’s own rather than one belonging to the generic rappers that populate the radio and MTV. Though it would be easy enough to say that (a) LL Cool J sounds like whatever rap sounds like at the time, (b) rap today lacks the heart that it once had, and thus (c) 10 is a shallow and disappointing effort, that conclusion overlooks the highlights of both this album and of rap today. Suffice it to say that for both quality LL Cool J and for quality modern rap, 10 is not the highest you can score.