LL Cool J
random acquaintance of mine once printed a college newspaper article that made an offhand, but still startling, remark: Herbie Hancock should’ve died thirty years ago because he had got old and out of touch on his latest releases.
One of our mutual friends threatened to punch him in the face the next day.
The lesson? Art grants some form of instant immortality: political, aesthetic, etc. Criticizing LL Cool J for continuing to make mediocre records is certainly fair, but it’s pointless. He peaked early. GASP! Get that. Move on.
Yet Todd Smith, his twelfth album since his precocious, pop-trailblazing Radio came out in 1984, draws again from a Def Jam fountain of youth to make a forgettable, dryly calculated but not totally charmless LP. He’s the immortal ladies man, the shameless flirt and, in a move most frustrating to hip-hop’s overwhelmingly male critical body, Todd Smith shows LL comfortable rapping exclusively to the fairer sex.
“Favorite Flavor” is a fine refined late-era LL Cool J joint: little sister rap melodies, a glossy piano stomp, and a quick sequence of gooey horns on the hook. The jackhammer subtle sexual metaphors—“my flavor unreal / Soft and hard / Like the wood grain in the wheel”— are just refinements of the coy, playful “Round the Way Girl” and “Milky Cereal.” But we know that, and we also know LL is going to use them anyway.
It takes younger, far, far more gully guest MC’s to drag Todd Smith into chest-puffing tangents. “LL and Santana” lets LL take some apparently unwarranted jabs at some rap outsiders: “Juve hustle harder, Birdman you still boring.”
Even though he’s categorically wrong, who are we to deny LL his well-earned (and, remembering the Canibus feud, often well-used) appetite for picking rhyme fights with anyone who clouds his diamonds?
Thankfully, the quick ventures into angst and mid-life crisis aggression are short lived. J.Lo, Mary J. Blige, 112, and Ginuwine (some of the almost dozen R&B; voices on the disc) lead LL by the hand to the standard menu of infatuation, affection, and PSA posturing (“Give 10% to God / Bet you get it right back!”).
The majority of Todd Smith reads like 10: minimally exerted, refined, and distilled synth-rap rendered near-indistinguishable with fatty drum swirls and ultra-bright production that wouldn’t be foreign on a Kidz Bop record. The album isn’t unsuccessful because it’s sunny; it’s because Smith’s sun is monochromatic and detail-destroying. The only spot of texture is tacked onto the album’s end, a tidy, cockily refurbishing remix of Ne-Yo’s already pearl-polished “So Sick.”
I’m happy to call myself a defender of LL—I can’t really imagine rap without most of his early work—but I’m also scared that Todd Smith might be the last straw for many fed up with his current direction.
But should we ask him to stop making music because he’s drifted into a boring old age?
Let’s be real: LL Cool J’s important, he’s ambitious, and he’s earned the right to do whatever he wants artistically…even though he fritters it away in moments like this.