No rapper has used the mike to show more sides of himself than LL Cool J. While most hip-hop stars nervously hold to one image, LL has acted as stud-muffin and sweetie pie, street tough and concerned citizen, ego freak and man of the people.
On Phenomenon, LL fuses all those characters to make one: role model. After more than a decade of rhyming on a (unprecedented for a rapper) string of five platinum records, LL has fashioned his album as the soundtrack to his new autobiography, I Make My Own Rules. In dense and clever couplets, it traces the New York rapper’s growth from tortured kid to settled husband and dad, all before his 30th birthday.
The result offers equal parts misty nostalgia and dark memory. In ”Candy” LL raps about marrying his high school sweetheart. In ”Starsky & Hutch” he recalls the wonder of early rap, and in ”Father Figure” he talks in part about his abusive dad who nearly killed his mother. LL keeps his patented sex raps, but now they end in marriage or offer rebukes to materialistic women. He even puts in a song encouraging men to be more patient with their orgasms.
It all could’ve ended up sounding like a lecture if LL hadn’t built such a backlog of trust from his audience — or if he didn’t make his own vulnerabilities so obvious. Ultimately, it’s the depth of his character that gives his raps edge.
Musically, the album takes far fewer risks than his innovative early work. With its happy beats, easy funk bass, and eager R&B melodies, Phenomenon best recalls the early rap LL grew up on. Think Sugar Hill for the ’90s, but with a wholly new kind of role for LL: the rapper who never had a real father here aims to father us all. B+