Monthly Archives: April 2013

Backstreet Boys 10 for 20: The QH Blend’s Favorite BSB Moments

Backstreet Boys, circa 2013: (L t R) A.J., Nick, Howie, Kevin, Brian

Backstreet Boys, circa 2013: (L t R) A.J., Nick, Howie, Kevin, Brian

A.J. McLean, Howie Dorough, Brian Littrell, Kevin Richardson, Nick Carter: The Backstreet Boys. That line itself will have you, the reader, exit or read further; it all depends on how you feel about this pop phenom.

The late 90’s five-piece found international success in 1996 before finally cracking the American market a year later. You know the rest. Blockbuster sales, hormonal teenage fans (girls and boys), drawing the ire of the rock press, and even a scandal or two. Through it all, the five men of Backstreet maintained an unexpected level head.

The fellas more importantly managed to break out of the boy band mold of lesser followers (★NSYNC) and spotlight their polyphonic pop harmonies; without question, Backstreet have the pipes to play at the big boys table in popular music. Their stream of now classic and (of course) unsung material spread across seven albums is baffling. To boomerang the subject back to “classic and unsung” material, this entry is an attempt to peek at some (of my) favorites from the Backstreet Boys.

The listing specifically coincides with their official 20th anniversary marker on April 20, 2013 to commemorate their first formation. The celebration has an already heady set-up: an eighth album, new tour, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Big events. This is my way of giving kudos for their longevity; 10 cuts (album and single fare) will be selected and discussed. I hope you all enjoy it.

MI0001707284#10. “Larger Than Life”* from Millennium (1999)

Thoughts: The Backstreet Boys were always vocal about how inspirational their fans were to their success. “Larger Than Life” moved that notion forward by putting their dedication over a pile-driving Euro-Americana-beat that ranked as one of their best uptempo moments to date. The wicked laugh of A.J. McLean that accompanies the opening is nothing short of a premonition that the Backstreet Boys were going to drop one of their stanker tracks on an unsuspecting populace. Mission accomplished.

[Watch/Listen to “Larger Than Life“]

MI0000918856#9. “Undone”** from This Is Us (2009)

Thoughts: The Backstreet Boys’ material from Never Gone (2005) onward took many surprising detours. “Undone” was one such turn in direction. The coiling groove worked at a boiling level, never reaching higher than needed. It allowed the Boys to take their harmonies right to the center of the cut and keep them there. A song of a darker color, which by then was not something the outfit was unfamiliar with, “Undone” was romance in shadow done to a high standard.

[Listen to “Undone“]

MI0001707284#8. “I Want It That Way”* from Millennium (1999)

Thoughts: Arguably, the Backstreet Boys calling card that everyone from Brooklyn to Budapest could sing the chorus from. Fit and trim, the song was easy with its melody and rolling harmony. Looking past its amazing hook, the rest of the composition hangs alongside other great male-vocal group love staples like “I’ll Be Around” (by The Spinners) and “End of the Road” (by Boyz II Men).

[Watch/Listen to “I Want It That Way“]

MI0002172105#7. “More Than That”* from Black and Blue (2000)

Thoughts: The Backstreet Boys have (insanely) not compiled an album of just their love songs. If they were to do so, this forgotten number would most definitely warrant inclusion. At the time of its release, it somewhat stalled on the charts. However, it soared on the back of its skyscraping singing (some of BSB’s best) and played the heartstrings of even the hardest cynic.

[Watch/Listen to “More Than That“]

MI0001855410#6. “Everything But Mine”** from Unbreakable (2007)

Thoughts: Backstreet Boys do a-ha? It sure sounded like it. The swiftness of this electronic backdrop recalled Minor Earth Major Sky (2000) era a-ha, but had a wall of vocalizing that only the Backstreet Boys could offer. Proof that not all of their uptempos had to be of the mentioned Euro-Americana-beat variety, “Everything But Mine” made a great case for BSB to (possibly) recast themselves in this sonic set-up more often.

[Listen to “Everything But Mine“]

MI0001855410#5. “Unmistakable”** from Unbreakable (2007)

Thoughts: Unbreakable had the Backstreet Boys at their most energized and vital. Despite the (temporary) departure of Kevin Richardson, the four remaining gentlemen drew together to craft an outstanding effort powered by emotional superchargers like “Unmistakable.” A showcase for each of the Backstreet members, the song held one of their strongest verse-and-chorus arrangements recorded.

[Listen to “Unmistakable“]

MI0001707284#4. “Show Me the Meaning of Being Lonely”* from Millennium (1999)

Thoughts: The first time the Backstreet Boys dimmed their light, in terms of their (then) saccharine image machine, and allowed something visceral to guide their music. Melancholy, lush, with (dare I say it) a touch of discernible ambience that heretofore hadn’t existed for the BSB; it endeared them to adults and gave them their shot at longevity.

[Watch/Listen to “Show Me the Meaning of Being Lonely“]

MI0000918856#3. “Bigger”* from This Is Us (2009)

Thoughts: After their artistic indulgences had been engaged on their two previous platters, the Backstreet Boys returned with a single that was thoroughly throwback. “Bigger” was all classic emoto-harmonies, enormous chorus, and melodically fortified pop to the T. One of the disappointing commercial misses of their tenure, “Bigger” isn’t any less of a fantastic piece of pure pop because of that.

[Watch/Listen to “Bigger“]

MI0001804460#2. “Siberia”** from Never Gone (2005)

Thoughts: Largely an acoustic fantasia, Never Gone compelled most on the expansive “Siberia.” Devastatingly in-tune lyrically and musically, the track ushered in, like its parent album, the “official” adult turn-of-season for the Backstreet Boys. Solid vocals that had their blends front-and-center like never before, “Siberia” was a true career highlight.

[Listen to “Siberia“]

MI0001655811#1. “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back)”* from Backstreet Back (Europe) (1997)/Backstreet Boys (America) (1997)

Thoughts: Firstly, the premise of the song may still confuse some. The Backstreet Boys, as discussed, had already broken Europe. This was a single lifted from their second album of a similar name abroad. However, Stateside, their debut was just rearing its head. The song was so strong that despite the narrative confusion for the U.S. public, the song remained on their first U.S. recording. Probably their second largest anthem (w/ “I Want It That Way”), “Everybody” is a funky, nasty get-down of urban-pop that still fills up the floor when the beat drops.

[Watch/Listen to “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back)“]

[Editor’s Note: *-denotes single, **-denotes album cut. All recordings mentioned are readily in print, physically and digitally. For current information on the Backstreet Boys, visit their official site.-QH]

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X-Static Process: Madonna’s “American Life” Turns 10

Madonna, Circa 2003

Madonna, Circa 2003

American Life, Madonna’s 10th studio recording, boldly sealed off the second phase of her career.

That period began earnestly with Bedtime Stories (1994); Madonna spent the majority of the ensuing years reaching a renaissance peak of expression with her craft. American Life became Madonna’s letter to herself; the personal narrative described how she fit into the broader Western-American cultural context and how she related to herself as a woman. Was the world ready for that level of pathos from Madonna is the question still surrounding the American Life LP.

The History
Madonna, musically, was at a level of success that qualified her (finally) as a credible singer-songwriter and performer at the first half of the 2000’s. The Drowned World Tour and GHV2 (her second hits collection), both happening in 2001, celebrated her artistic shift toward that inward space.

Records like Bedtime Stories, Ray of Light (1998) and Music (2000) found ways to cut between ballads and the dancefloor; her sonics were stylistically at their most diverse.

Where else could Madonna adventure in the remainder of her third decade? If Music was a coeval, Technicolor dream of Madonna’s musings up-to-that juncture, American Life staged a sharp, monochromatic swing in direction. Recording began immediately once the ill-fated ‘Swept Away,’ the film partnership with her then-husband Guy Ritchie, wrapped in late 2001.

The Record
Madonna and co-creator Mirwais Ahmadzaï headed up the project, which left the rest of a Spartan supporting cast to round out the principal sessions: Mark “Spike” Stent, Guy Sigsworth, Jem Griffiths (later just Jem), Monte Pittman and Stuart Price. Ahmadzaï was one of the key players behind Music; his chemistry with Madonna echoed her former partnership connection with Shep Pettibone.

Alternate shot of the "American Life" single cover

Alternate shot of the “American Life” single cover

The intimacy of Madonna and her acoustic guitar (again) factored into the ingenious-incongruity that summed up American Life; the album was a mixture of flesh and steel taken to the next level.

Electro-fury shook on the jarring slam-bam beats of “Nobody Knows Me.” It labored alongside the superfluous production chatter and melodic guitar-lines of “Hollywood.” Further combinations dominated the record on the dramatic, string-laden, mechanized tango-stepper “Die Another Day.” There, Madonna’s voice was full-bodied and clipped (“Sigmund Freud, analyze this!”), dovetailing between the natural and artificial with guile. The clinical-cool vocal of the title track was nowhere to be heard on the zephyr-like “Love Profusion” and “Intervention” however. “Profusion’s” tempo was paced a tad faster than the subdued-and-stripped power ballad “Intervention”; both songs became definitive downtempos for Madonna.

Additional slower numbers littered the LP: the quiet folk of “X-Static Process” and the gospel-grace of “Nothing Fails.” Each marked a continuous confessional presence in Madonna’s second stage of her music. Lines like “Do I have to change my name? Will it get me far? Should I lose some weight? Am I gonna be star?” imbued American Life with a self-reflecting, if masochistic, air.

If “I’m So Stupid” and “Mother and Father” stuttered with their heavy-handed, if admirable, chastisements of celebrity culture and her (past) childishness, there was redemption in the album closer “Easy Ride.” Doused in grandiose violins, the song detailed that Madonna was hard at work on herself, her marriage, her family and the world itself.

American Life, at 11 cuts, didn’t overstate itself. In its span, the long player allowed Madonna to succinctly critique her idealized self and the “American dream” that spawned her.

The Impact
The “first” single from American Life was “Die Another Day,” the theme to the 20th James Bond spy film of the same name. Madonna herself had a playful cameo as a fencing instructor named Vesper in the movie. Released on 10/22/02, the song became the expected hit worldwide: U.S. Dance #1, Canada #1, U.K. #3, AU #5, U.S. #8, France #15. The actual American Life long player and its titular single wouldn’t be released until the Spring of 2003.

From the "Die Another Day" music video

Still from the “Die Another Day” music video

In a perverse sense of timing, “American Life” (the single) was dropped on 3/24/03.  That was just several days after the U.S. Invasion of Iraq on 3/19/03.

The video, one of her most controversial pieces, ended up being pulled by Madonna at the final hour. Never one to shy away from getting people to think, or speak, on a subject, Madonna maturely stated: “I have decided not to release my new video. It was filmed before the war started and I do not believe it is appropriate to air it at this time. Due to the volatile state of the world and out of sensitivity and respect to the armed forces, who I support and pray for, I do not want to risk offending anyone who might misinterpret the meaning of this video. The Jonas Åkerlund directed clip featured an uncut and edited version, neither are available commercially currently.

The public flogging The Dixie Chicks endured at openly criticizing President George Bush a month earlier may have played a role too. In spite of all the buzz around the song, it met lukewarm-to-positive reception critically and on the charts: U.S. Dance #1, Canada #1, U.K. #2, France #10, U.S. #37. With its Che Guevara inspired album cover, American Life released on 4/22/03. The recording divided critics, positive and negative perspectives overlapping into one another.

All Music Guide’s Stephen Thomas Erlewine thoughtfully discussed:

American Life winds up as the first Madonna record with ambitions as serious as a textbook. It plays as somberly as either Like a Prayer or Ray of Light, just as it delves into an insular darkness as deep as Erotica while retaining the club savviness of the brilliant, multi-colored Music. This is an odd mixture, particularly when it’s infused with a searching, dissatisfied undercurrent and a musical sensibility that is at once desperate and adventurous, pitched halfway between singer/songwriterisms and skimming of current club culture.

It’s pulled tight between these two extremes, particularly because the intimate guitar-based songs (and there are a lot of them, almost all beginning with just her and a guitar) are all personal meditations, with the dance songs usually functioning as vehicles for social commentary. Even if the sparer ballads are introspective, they’re treated as soundscapes by producer Mirwais, giving them an unsettling eerie quality that is mirrored by the general hollowness of the club songs.

Dimitri Ebrlich of Vibe Magazine nailed the spirit of American Life on its head:

The formula she (Madonna) developed on her previous album, Music-acoustic-guitar ditties dressed up in with club friendly electronica-is still as distinctive as it is danceable. What has changed, however, are Madonna’s lyrics, which have evolved to examine aging, death, loss, and the meaning of life.

Stylus Magazine writer Ed Howard gave the effort a failing grade stating:

This is Madonna’s most conservative album instrumentally as well as lyrically. Producer Mirwais (who also helmed the boards for a few songs on 2000’s Music) crafts from his usual palette of heavily processed guitars and subdued techno beats, keeping the mood mostly restrained and low-key in stark contrast to the genre-switching Music.

After the squelchy keyboards of the opening title track and the mid-tempo guitar-hop of “Hollywood” (both of which, barring some gratingly awkward raps, are at least somewhat engaging), the album descends into a group of trite acoustic ballads. 

The chart statistics for American Life were initially strong: U.S. Billboard 200 #1, U.K. #1, France #1, Canada #1, A.R.I.A. #3, Japan #4. In some territories, the marathon year ahead for American Life and its subsequent singles would wear out the album, despite its early high energy showings.

Shot from the "Hollywood" music video

Shot from the “Hollywood” music video

“Hollywood” (7/14/03) and “Nothing Fails” (10/26/03) were lifted from the platter as singles; both were persona non grata at the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 where neither charted. Other U.S. charts (U.S. Billboard Adult Singles, U.S. Hot Dance Music/Club Play), the United Kingdom, and the general international scenes favored Madonna still: “Hollywood” (U.S. B.B. Adult Singles #35, U.S. Dance #1, U.K. #2, Canada #5, France #22), “Nothing Fails” (U.S. Dance #33, Canada #7, France #34, AU #54).

As “Nothing Fails” limped into the mid-to-lower chart regions, Madonna’s pair-up with her anemic follower Britney Spears, “Me Against the Music” (10/20/03) was making waves (U.S. Dance #1, AU #1, Canada #2, U.K. #4, France #11, U.S. #35). The song was serviced as Spears’ first single from her fourth record, In the Zone (2003).  This partnership came on the back of an eyebrow-raising performance at the MTV Video Music Awards the same year; Madonna performed with Missy Elliott, Spears and Christina Aguilera during a medley performance of “Like a Virgin,” “Hollywood” and “Work It.” In a memorable pop culture moment, Madonna kissed both Spears and Aguilera.

American Life’s credibility took a hit with the unnecessary kissing stunt. By the time the final single from the LP (“Love Profusion”) and a companion EP (Remixed & Revisited) appeared at 2003’s conclusion, the record had run its commercial course. The sadly forgotten and fine “Love Profusion” did have a few favorable showings globally: Spain #1, U.S. Dance #1, Canada #3, U.K. #11, AU #25.

In the end, Madonna pulled platinum in her major areas of interest (U.S., U.K., Canada, France, Australia) and gold in every other country. Madonna steamrolled into 2004 and unleashed her sixth concert, The Re-Invention World Tour. The show was a critical, creative and commercial victory/revenge against those that discounted Madonna just a year prior to its launch. Combining a “jukebox” hits approach, but without sacrificing that the tour was a hotbed for American Life’s music, Madonna had her cake and ate it too.

“Love Profusion”

Directed By: Luc Besson

Madonna rebounded with across-the-board favor on Confessions on a Dancefloor (2005); it was her first veteran affair. American Life was Madonna’s last album to be hungry for the kind of artistry that encapsulated the second era of her music career.

Appropriate then that it was the curtain call on a period known, mostly, for Madonna’s music garnering attention primarily. The record is a fantastic time capsule of where the Queen of Pop was personally and professionally; all-at-once American Life was (and is) unapologetic, refreshingly sensitive and thoroughly Madonna. Ranking: Classic

[Editor’s Note: American Life is readily in print, in digital and physical formats. For current information on Madonna, visit her official site.-QH]

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LL Cool J: From “Radio” to “Exit 13”

Ladies (and gentlemen) Love Cool James

Ladies (and gentlemen) Love Cool James

James Todd Smith was only 16 when he made history. The Queens New Yorker was pioneering a sound that was aggressive, artistic, and vibrant; the product of his hardwork landed him a deal with the (then) burgeoning record imprint Def Jam.

His debut Radio (1985), went on to become one of the archetypes of the hip-hop sound and helped create the Def Jam label (now Island/Def Jam) from the ground up. Much has happened in the three decades since LL Cool J (“Ladies Love Cool James”) took the mic and slammed into the collective consciousness of popular music; his music remains unflinchingly vital in its best moments however.

Until arguably Jay-Z, LL Cool J was the longest standing emcee who managed to reinvent himself in hip-hop with commercial and (sometimes) creative triumphs. He has since embraced a slew of other entrepreneurial endeavors (acting, fashion, endorsements); but music would always boomerang back to LL.

Yet, it can’t go without saying that LL often found himself sandwiched between being “relevant” and “artistically present”; to say that his art hasn’t suffered in certain instances wouldn’t be honest. But, each of his 12 records has shaped, precipitated, or followed events in hip-hop; he is both an auteur and a shrewd presence in his field.

LL’s first album of original material, Authentic (S-Bro Music Group), is street bound on April 30th, 2013. To celebrate the release of this icon’s unmistakable style making waves in this, his fourth decade, The QH Blend is looking back at all of his past works. The review of Authentic will appear here at the conclusion of this month. Let’s reminisce with the man, the legend, the “G.O.A.T.”, Mr. Smith.

MI0002079615

Radio

Radio:  1985
Production Cast: Rick Rubin, Jazzy Jay
Placements: Billboard 200 #46, Billboard R&B/Hip-Hop #6
Notable Singles: “I Need a Beat,” “I Can’t Live Without My Radio,” “Rock the Bells”
Synopsis: The sharp N.Y.C. wall of sound that emerged from Radio was defining as it was fresh. Over relentless breaks, beats, and loops, LL Cool J presented his persona: handsome, charming, street, and down. The words focused on talent presentation (“I Need a Beat”), boasts (“I Can Give You More”) and youthful humor (“You Can’t Dance”). LL’s flow was fine and though he still had growing to do, his skill shone through on “I Can’t Live Without My Radio.” Of its time, there is something timeless about Radio that has made it continually resonate with younger audiences in later years.
Ranking: Classic
[Watch “I Can’t Live Without My Radio“]

Bigger and Deffer

Bigger and Deffer

Bigger and Deffer:  1987
Production Cast: L.A. Posse, DJ Pooh
Placements: Billboard 200 #3, Billboard R&B/Hip-Hop #1
Notable Singles: “I’m Bad,” “I Need Love”
Synopsis: Not as enduring as Radio, Bigger and Deffer was far from a disappointment. LL’s tongue still lashed a rhyme fast and furious, as heard on “Go Cut Creator Go” and the banging “I’m Bad.” What made Bigger and Deffer transcend hip-hop was an unlikely sentimental piece, “I Need Love.” Cool and romantic, the hip-hop ballad was sincere in its plea for affection on both ends of a relationship. The first of its kind, it managed to give LL a wider audience, endearing him to traditional R&B and pop outlets. The legacy of “I Need Love” later could be traced through a variety of black music acts from Mary J. Blige to Drake.
Ranking: Above Average
[Watch “I Need Love“]

Walking With the Panther

Walking With the Panther

Walking With the Panther: 1989
Production Cast
: LL Cool J, Rick Rubin, DJ Cut Creator, The Bomb Squad
Placements: Billboard 200 #6, Billboard R&B/Hip-Hop #1
Notable Singles: “Going Back to Cali,” “Big Ole’ Butt,” “Jingling Baby”
Synopsis: With new thematic shifts happening in hip-hop (social, gangsta), LL didn’t adapt quickly enough. The pieces were right for a succinct return-to-form of Radio proportions (Rubin was on board again), but Walking With the Panther played as a party record late to the party. Despite a few Kangol-era dated duds, there were flashes of wit on the tongue-in-cheek “Going Back to Cali.” After a masterpiece and solid sophomore turn-in, LL was due one misfire on his junior record.
Ranking: Transitional
[Watch: “Going Back to Cali“]

Mama Said Knock You Out

Mama Said Knock You Out

Mama Said Knock You Out: 1990
Production Cast: Marley Marl, Bobby “Bobcat” Ervin
Placements: Billboard 200 #16, Billboard R&B/Hip-Hop #2
Notable Singles: “Mama Said Knock You Out,” “The Boomin’ System,” “Around the Way Girl”
Synopsis: “Don’t call it a comeback, I’ve been here for years!” If that statement didn’t say it all, nothing else could. The title cut went right to the heart of those that sniped LL was washed-up after one mistake on Walking With the Panther. Boldly contemporary, without being cloying, Mama Said Knock You Out was all killer, no filler. Whether reconstructing his suave groove for the ladies (“Around the Way Girl”), reclaiming his love for music (“The Boomin’ System”), or putting down a sensual spell (“Mr. Goodbar”), LL was at his best.
Ranking: Classic
[Watch: “Around the Way Girl“]

14 Shots to the Dome

14 Shots to the Dome

14 Shots to the Dome: 1993
Production Cast: QD III, Marley Marl, Bobby “Bobcat” Ervin, Andrew Zenable, Christopher Joseph Forte
Placements: Billboard 200 #5, Billboard R&B/Hip-Hop #1
Notable Singles: “How I’m Comin’,” “Pink Cookies In a Plastic Bag Getting Crushed By Buildings”
Synopsis: Hip-hop’s landscape kept changing; in addition to gangsta rap, a jazz influenced style was rearing its head via A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul. Caught between the two extremes, LL jumped right in and worked with both sub-genres of hip-hop magnificently. The title referred to the amount of songs on the long player aimed at the listener’s head. Rugged (“How I’m  Comin'”) and ironic (“Funkadelic Relic”), LL platformed his finest lyrics committed to record. In fact, one of his unsung masterpieces (“Pink Cookies”) was a fantastic allegory for sex in music. Its single version wasn’t as grand as its album rendition in retrospect. Misunderstood (still), 14 was LL’s last album to be completely realized and prepared in a proper way.
Ranking: Semi-Classic
[Watch “Pink Cookies In a Plastic Bag Getting Crushed By Buildings” (Single Edit)]

Mr. Smith

Mr. Smith

Mr. Smith: 1995
Production Cast: Rashad Smith, Chyskillz, Chad Elliott, Trackmasters, Easy Mo Bee
Placements: Billboard 200 #5, Billboard R&B/Hip-Hop #1
Notable Singles: “Doin’ It,” “Hey Lover,” “I Shot Ya”
Synopsis: A return to form, commercially, Mr. Smith appealed to every part of LL’s fanbase. One of his prime hip-hop ballads “Hey Lover” (w/ Boyz II Men) was a massive hit as much as the smutty delight of “Doin’ It” was. The ferocity of “I Shot Ya” stirred controversy as a supposed diss record toward fellow hip-hop icon, Tupac Shakur. In other spots LL was in exceptional shape on “Hip Hop” and “Mr. Smith”; but the beginning of his sound treading was apparent in other places on Mr. Smith as LL turned his head to other ventures.
Ranking: Above Average
[Watch “Doin’ It“]

Phenomenon

Phenomenon

Phenomenon: 1997
Production Cast: Sean Combs, The Hitmen, Trackmasters, Daven “Prestige” Vanderpool,  L.E.S., Erick Sermon (of EPMD), Curt Gowdy
Placements: Billboard 2o0 #7, Billboard R&B/Hip-Hop #4
Notable Singles: “Phenomenon,” “4, 3, 2, 1”
Synopsis: By the time Phenomenon dropped, LL had become a certified brand in a multitude of outlets. Because of this, the subsequent long player spun as an extension of that brand versus being a statement record. To LL’s credit, not everything had to be about statement’s per se; LL dealt in dapper party records and the deadly bounce of the titular song testified to that. Excusing “Phenomenon,” the breezy “Don’t Be Late, Don’t Come Too Soon” (w/ Tamia), and LL’s meanest diss song “4, 3, 2, 1,” the record pooled into a well of late 90s bad taste and excess.
Ranking: Transitional
[Watch: “Phenomenon“]

G.O.A.T.

G.O.A.T.

G.O.A.T.: 2000
Production Cast
: DJ Scratch, Ill Am, Rockwilder, Trackmasters, Havoc, Adam F, Vade Nobles, Antney
Placements: Billboard 200 #2, Billboard R&B/Hip-Hop #1
Notable Singles: “Imagine That,” “You and Me”
Synopsis: The title, an acronym for “Greatest of All Time” was no mere hype. LL had earned the moniker and as some tracks attested (“Queens Is”) LL could lay down material with any emcee in the game. G.O.A.T. stumbled from its inability to translate the real LL to the record versus a cardboard cut-out of himself for the 00’s. Because of the image superseding LL’s actual personality, the record caved in under an (overtly) aggressive mindset to prove his position instead of secure it. There are fair moments as heard on the reflective ballad in “You and Me” with Kelly Price; disappointingly, songs like “You and Me” are rare on this mean, murky set.
Ranking: Below Average
[Watch: “You and Me“]

10

10

10: 2002
Production Cast: The Neptunes, Poke & Tone, Ron Lawrence
Placements: Billboard 200 #2, Billboard R&B/Hip-Hop #1
Notable Singles: “Luv U Better,” “Paradise”
Synopsis: Even with its misnomer of 10, due to LL counting his hits collection All World (1996) as an album (?), the LP found LL supercharged. While LL maintained a gap between his own real-life self and that of his “LL Cool J” mask, the songs weren’t any less relaxed, modern, or enchanting. From the acidic “Fa Ha,” its use of “Rich Girl” by Hall & Oates was amazing, to the salacious “Lollipop,” LL doled out his most fun, flirty lines since “Around the Way Girl.” Even the features that previously drowned out LL on his albums, were restricted to just three; Amerie’s assistance on “Paradise” was the shining star of the batch. Bright and smiling, 10 was LL Cool J in good, if not perfect, form.
Ranking: Above Average
[Watch: “Paradise“]

The DEFinition

The DEFinition

The DEFinition: 2004
Production Cast: Timbaland, 7 Aurelius, R. Kelly, Eric Willaims, Teddy Riley, Marquinarius Holmes, Dame Grease
Placements: Billboard 200 #14, Billboard R&B/Hip-Hop #3
Notable Singles: “Headsprung,” “Hush”
Synopsis: A production showcase for a post-Under Construction (2002) Timbaland (“Headsprung”) and oo’s Murder Inc. knob-twirler 7 Aurelius (“Hush”), The DEFinition didn’t actually define anything for LL. It wasn’t as lush in its modish appeal as 10 and (thankfully) it wasn’t as harsh as G.O.A.T.; it fell somewhere between the two poles of those recordings. To its credit, it did have a bevy of club and car stereo system ready joints; LL just operated on auto-pilot lyrically for this entry.
Ranking: Transitional
[Watch: “Headsprung“]

Todd Smith

Todd Smith

Todd Smith: 2006
Production Cast: Trackmasters, Pharell, Scott Storch, Jermaine Dupri, Bink, Shea Taylor, Keezo Kane
Placements: Billboard 200 #6, Billboard R&B/Hip-Hop #2
Notable Singles: “Control Myself,” “Freeze”
Synopsis: Todd Smith had a promising reveal with the Afrika Bambaataa and Soulsonic Force “Planet Rock” sampled ripple of “Control Myself.” The single contained an alluring guest spot from Jennifer Lopez doing a return-favor for LL as he appeared on “All I Have” from her 2002 set, This Is Me…Then. What Todd Smith ended up expressing across its surface was a poor medley of tacky features (only “1 Fan” had LL alone). The guests not only washed LL out, the songs didn’t rise above their shiny, hollow exteriors. If anyone stated that LL Cool J had let his brand overcome his music in 2006, Todd Smith was finally evidence to support that idea.
Ranking: Poor
[Watch “Control Myself“]

Exit 13

Exit 13

Exit 13: 2008
Production Cast: Cue Beats, Dame Grease, Music Mystro, Street Runner, Suits & Ray Burghardt, Ryan Leslie, Illfonics, The-Dream, Tricky Stewart, DJ Scratch, Raw Uncut, Marley Marl, Frado & Absolut
Placements: Billboard 200 #9, Billboard R&B/Hip-Hop #3
Notable Singles: “Rocking with the G.O.A.T.,” “Baby,” “Feel My Heart Beat”
Synopsis: Down to its gigantic cover art, Exit 13, LL’s final Island/Def Jam album was due to deliver greatness. Instead, it managed to capture the good and bad things LL Cool J had gone through in his music travels. Far stronger than Todd Smith, especially in its past glory resurrection on “You Better Watch Me,” Exit 13 had many highlights. “Baby” was another of LL’s patented party starter/slow groove romancers that could fill floors and get hands-on-hips. But, stumbles included a misguided anthem rock-rap remix of “Baby”; the bland “It’s Time For War” just scowled through the music. With editing, Exit 13 could have been the record to sequel Mr. Smith or 10; instead it was a record that was a victim of its own uncertainty.
Ranking: Transitional
[Watch: “Baby“]

Authentic: 2013

Check Back at the of April 2013 for the review of LL Cool J's new LP

Check back at the end of April 2013 for the review of LL Cool J’s new LP

[Editor’s Note: The QH Blend Ranking System is as follows: “Classic,” “Semi-Classic,” “Above Average,” “Transitional,” “Below Average,” “Poor.” All of the reviewed recordings are in print, physically and digitally. For current information on LL Cool J, visit his official site.-QH]

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