LL Cool J
o, really, don’t call it a comeback. James Todd Smith has been here for years, long enough at least to make eleven albums (each one platinum, as he’s only too willing to impart), and though he’s getting older he certainly doesn’t look it (those chiselled arms are as big as they’ve ever been, even if his face looks gaunt compared to a decade ago) and he sure as hell ain’t never gonna act it. After all, even though his debut single was nearly 20 years ago, he’s still only 36 years old; some people have barely begun careers by that age, but LL has been a superstar for more than half his life.
When word got out a few months ago that LL was working on a full album with Timbaland, and that he was intending to make it chock full of club bangers and lay off the love jams, people were understandably excited. James T Smith may have made a career out of doing it for the ladies instead of the gangsters, but there can’t be much doubt that his absolute best material has come when he’s hit the dancefloor, either as a pugilist or a laid-back groover. The question is whether or not LL and Timbaland can each keep their game high enough to pull it off over a full record.
Unsurprisingly, only just over half the album is produced by Timbo, and there is a smattering of love jams amongst the bangers. And those bangers? Well, despite what some have said, there’s nothing as career-smashingly great as “Mama Said Knock You Out”. Opener “Headsprung”, with its springy guitar riffs and dramatic beat drop after Mr Smith announces “They call me big LL”, is a hit but not a monster, and “Rub My Back”, which completes the one-two Timbo combo that starts the album, is only half as weird and 50% as hard as it thinks it is, even if it is still twice as good as you might expect. The N.O. Joe produced “Move Somethin’” does the Timbaland-does-dancehall thing as well as the man himself has recently, right down to its rapid-fire drum-machine handclaps, but fails to take off in the chorus, while the other N.O. track, “Shake It Baby”, pales in comparison to its JC Chasez & Basement Jaxx near namesake. Later on, the almost bizarre “Apple Cobbler” sounds like something that Timbo had left over from the last Missy album, LL even doing his best to ape Missy’s cheekily garbled Southernisms.
Oddly enough the two tracks that perhaps work best are love jams. “Can’t Explain It” is swathed in ambient wind and coiling bass while LL charms and seduces on an epic, elemental scale (from certain angles it almost sounds like Maxwell). The other romantic peak is “Hush”, a simply gorgeous number made of beatbox kisses and mellifluous keys, with 7 Aurelius assuring us “everything’ll be OK if we do it my way” while LL himself steps aside into the relative anonymity of the verses.
THE DEFinition is tight and professional, only stretching to 45 minutes and eleven songs, with no skits. But for an album by an established, charismatic, multimillionaire superstar as well known in Hollywood as the charts, there’s a distinct lack of personality, meaning that LL Cool J’s eleventh long player is merely good, and his reputation (and bank balance) will be neither tarnished nor expanded.