LL Cool J: 10

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LL Cool J

Album: 10
Label: Def Jam

Throughout his long and scattered career, LL Cool J has constantly reinvented himself to stay competitive in the ever-shifting Darwinian hip-hop landscape. Since the mid-'90s, however, those transformations have taken on an increasingly desperate and mercenary air. In 1997, Phenomenon and its companion autobiography and media blitz attempted to reinvent him as a God-fearing, family-friendly superstar for the P. Diddy era. When that failed to elevate Cool J to Will Smith-level stardom, he returned to grimy, battle-rapping Jack The Ripper form on 2000's G.O.A.T., an album notable mainly for its unintentionally comic title and failed attempt to win back his street credibility. It remains to be seen whether his recent endorsement of New York Gov. George Pataki will lure the all-important Republican contingent back into the fold, but Cool J isn't taking any commercial chances with 10. In addition to snagging five concoctions from The Neptunes, Cool J litters the album with saccharine R&B choruses transparently designed to attract mainstream radio play. Cool J's teaming with The Neptunes has already paid off with "Luv U Better," which subscribes to a simple but effective formula: "I Need Love" plus The Neptunes equals a big old hit. Calculated but irresistible, "Luv U Better" dispenses smarmy sweet nothings, but The Neptunes' production somehow makes Cool J's lines sound fresh again. The production duo's other contributions aren't as noteworthy: "Niggy Nuts" attempts Dirty South bounce with forgettable results, while "Amazin'" is just one of many songs ruined by anemic R&B hooks, this time from Kandice Love. The P. Diddy-assisted "After School" listlessly attempts to replicate the earth-shaking braggadocio of "Pass The Courvoisier," complete with karaoke-style interpolations of golden oldies "Rapper's Delight" and "It Takes Two." Cool J has backed off from proclaiming himself the greatest rapper of all time at every possible opportunity, which is fortunate: His claim on that title has never been shakier.