On his new album, L.L. Cool J, the Muhammad Ali of hip-hop, demands that everyone acknowledge that he's "the man" and give him his "props" ("proper respect"). Rap pioneers Run-DMC, who now sport bald heads, are also in your face on "Down With the King," demanding their props for paying their dues. Finally, the four equally hairless gentlemen in Onyx seen glowering on their album cover are, well, just in your face. Why are they all so worked up? Read on.

L.L. Cool J

If there's any rapper who's surely gotten his props by now, it's L.L. Cool J. With his last album, the double-platinum "Mama Said Knock You Out," he won back the street credibility he lost with 1989's self-aggrandizing "Walking With the Panther." Unfortunately, on "14 Shots to the Dome" (Def Jam/Columbia), L.L. ventures back down the well-worn path of "Panther" instead of following up "Mama's" brilliantly executed celebration of hip-hop culture, one that brought "around the way girls" and cars' "boomin' systems" to life through vivid sonic and lyrical portraits.

Instead, there are the familiar brags: "Open your mouth and taste the Glock," roars L.L. on the first single, "How I'm Comin'." As gunshot sound effects ripple against the dark combination of bass and horns, he vows to blow away sucker MCs and pop rappers in the street-shout of "Buckin' 'Em Down," and "Ain't No Stoppin' This" is more word to the competition. "Soul Survivor," "Funkadelic Relic" and "Straight From Queens" (which features Jamaican dance hall artist Lt. Stitchie) come off as mere L.L. worship. Still, it's hardly surprising that longevity is a recurrent theme: At 25, L.L. is not only a survivor but one of rap's elder statesmen (his first singles came out in 1984).

If L.L. seems unwilling to abandon that old school bravado, he does seem willing to take chances. Although it's not totally successful, the apocalyptic "Crossroads" aims at a hip-hop era, underscored by strings, horns and choir. "All We Got Left Is the Beat" celebrates the power of rhythm with bitter irony over how limited that power really is. "Diggy Down" examines the effects of racism, crime, homelessness and AIDS.

Unfortunately, three of the album's best cuts are painfully short on originality. The R&B-flavored "Stand by Your Man" is little more than a thematic update of L.L.'s 1987 hit ballad "I Need Love." With its clever references to names of rappers and rap groups, the P.M. Dawn-esque "Pink Cookies in a Plastic Bag Getting Crushed by Buildings" mimics what L.L.'s cereal references did in "Milky Cereal." And the romantic "Back Seat," with its slow, piano-driven pulse, recounts yet another tale of sexual conquest in L.L.'s Jeep.

Producer Marley Marl has returned (with Bobcat and QD III on some cuts), so "14 Shots to the Dome" has a super-fat sound full of looping tracks and street savvy beats, and L.L. proves himself still the master word blaster. (To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call 202-334-9000 and press 8171.)

Run-DMC

Almost anything from these old-school masters would be an improvement on 1991's "Back From Hell." Perhaps out of a sense of debt and deep respect for Run-DMC's status as hip-hop pioneers, a host of current hip-hop luminaries -- Q-Tip from A Tribe Called Quest, Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth, and Naughty by Nature -- appear as guest rappers, producers or both on "Down With the King" (Profile). Call it a comeback.

Rappers Run and DMC and deejay Jam Master Jay seem to be on a twofold mission: to celebrate what they've done to advance hip-hop since their early 1980s heyday (most noticeably on the up-tempo title track) and to deliver cuts to make Run-DMC fans nostalgic for those good old days. On "In the House," for example, Run and DMC rap references to their old hits, including "My Adidas," while the rock guitar-powered "Big Willie" makes one long for the power chords and tag-team shouts of 1985's classic cut "King of Rock."

But looking forward and taking a cue from Naughty by Nature, Run often raps in a style and speed similar to that group's Treach, with DMC joining him to shout the choruses of "Come On Everybody" and "Can I Get It, Yo," something young hip-hoppers from Das-EFX to Fu-Schnickens are doing. And the tempo and chorus of "3 in the Head" make it a dead ringer for the Cypress Hill song "Hand on the Pump."

Be it mimicry or tribute to the current hip-hop styles, "Down With the King" boasts expert production, and its consistently up-tempo pace makes it the perfect soundtrack for summer parties -- exactly where Run-DMC first rocked the mikes back in the day. Incidentally, they're on the Letterman show tonight. (To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call 202-334-9000 and press 8172.)

Onyx

Maybe the four rappers of Onyx, signed to Jam Master Jay's label (JMJ/RAL) and produced by him, missed their calling. From the album's title (unprintable) and how many times they tell us to "back up," it seems they should have been nightclub bouncers. Though some hip-hop titles can be misleading and can lead fans and critics alike to dismiss or misinterpret a song's intent, what you hear from rappers Suave, Sticky Fingaz, Fredro and Big DS is what you get. From the rough, rugged bass, drums and horns to titles like "Throw Ya Gunz" and "Atak of da Bal-hedz," the rappers of Onyx are strictly hardcore, often threatening "beat-downs" or worse if you cross them.

In a recent and well-publicized incident, the group re-enacted the lyrics from one of its songs when the rappers beat a New York bootleg tape vendor to a pulp before being arrested. Whether that was a genuine display of anger or a well-organized publicity stunt, Onyx's lyrics about beat-downs, stickups and gun-toting may be more real than fantasy. (To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call 202-334-9000 and press 8173.)