L.L. Cool J doesn't mind boasting. In fact, he's something of an expert. In "Cool Rock," from his album "Radio" (Def Jam/Columbia BFC 40239), the 17-year-old rapper calls himself "the mike dominator, best of all time," and goes on to insist that "my literature is above Shakespeare," adding, "the great Edgar Allan Poe couldn't write this good." Grammar aside, it's no wonder he feels "the world was glad when Cool J came."
Such immodesty is hardly unusual in rap circles; indeed, there are rappers whose whole act consists of singing their own praises while ranking on their competitors. Cool J indulges in one-upmanship himself, but he avoids making it the focus of his act.
Mind you, that's not to say he's above put-downs. Several raps here -- "You Can't Dance," "Dear Yvette" and "That's a Lie" -- are little more than danceable insults, but with a sense of humor. "That's a Lie" is particularly funny, thanks to the contrast between Cool J's lines ("There are 8 million stories, and they're all made up by you") and the self-parodistic palaver of his manager, Russell Simmons. Only "Dear Yvette" poses problems, not through any inherent meanness in Cool J's description of female promiscuity, but rather because he seems utterly unaware of the internal contradiction between his salacious description of Yvette's exploits and his revulsion at her loose morals.
But then, how many 17-year-olds would be able to understand that double standard? L.L. Cool J is hardly a macho meathead; indeed one of the most affecting raps on "Radio" is "I Want You," a touching declaration of love for one of his older sisters' college-age girlfriends that shows a surprising amount of tenderness. Although his desire is painfully at odds with his age, he doesn't try to overstate his case in hope that a big noise will make him seem more manly. Instead, he redirects his verbal bravado, channeling his wordplay into vivid description and daring rhyme, even softening his delivery. Thus, this ends up being as close as rap comes to love balladry.
That track alone would be enough to make "Radio" a noteworthy effort, but it's just one of many marvels. The title track itself is a wonder, a celebration of the sonic assault practiced by the owners of boom boxes. "I don't mean to offend other citizens," he jokes, "but I kick my volume way past 10." Yet it isn't just the rhymes that enliven the track, for Cool J is a master at making melodies out of rhythm. Working closely with the DMX patterns and turntable cutting laid down by cohorts El-Shabazz and Cut Creator, Cool J deftly sets a pattern of rhythmic tension and release that perfectly parallels the verse/chorus structure of a song.
Considering that Cool J's first single was the aptly titled "I Need a Beat," his affinity for great grooves is hardly surprising, but it must be remarked that he never misses his mark. "Rock the Bells," for example, features a chorus motif built off of a burst of noise from some heavy metal record that Cut Creator uses to count off the beat before segueing into a percussion break from an old Trouble Funk record. As he sets up the basic rhythmic idea, Cool J dances around the groove, doubling then halving the beat as he goes into his verbal windup. It's a tremendously sophisticated use of rhythm, and Cool J's delivery is as smooth and natural as conversation. Which, no doubt, is why Cool J rocks the bells better than anyone.
He certainly does a better job than Lovebug Starski, despite Starski's several-year head start. It isn't that Starski can't bust a rhyme or keep a beat, but as "House Rocker" (Epic BFE 40255) plainly shows, his delivery is limited to a mere handful of mannerisms, and it takes more than that to rock a house.
Fortunately, Starski gets some powerful help on a couple of numbers. The title track, for instance, is standard MC braggadocio, but thanks to a flashy funk rhythm bed produced by mix master D.St., the rap is lifted out of its rut. Even more impressive is the fun-house production lent "Amityville (The House on the Hill)." Although the basic idea is hardly new, the addition of impressionist Ron Darian spices up the mix immensely. It's a small pleasure, but on records like this, you take what you can get.