TEN

LL Cool JThere's old school and then there's LL Cool J, who, 10 albums into his indestructible career, manages to sound contemporary if not innovative. Cool James has always straddled hip-hop genres, sometimes to the point of blandness -- always acting, by turns, enough of the playa, enough of the nasty boy and enough of the R&B sweetheart to sustain himself on the charts whatever the prevailing wind.

"Ten" celebrates the rapper in all his guises: "fresh off the private jet from Europe" in "Born to Love You," newly rededicated husband in "Luv U Better," encouraging his hot-tub partner in "Paradise" -- and that's just the first three songs.

There's plenty of playful, expertly rhymed boasting and lots of lovin' up the ladies (check out the "subtext" on the nice-naughty "Lollipop"), but LL's well-greased corniness and masterly sense of flow are matters of reflex. The modernity is all in the mix, wherein R&B smooth and hip-hop jerk gain an alluring dissonance from the spare production. Studio stars the Neptunes do the grandest atmospherics around with the least busy layering, their chilly aural underpinnings turning the affable LL bellicose on the great single "Niggy Nuts," ominous on the gangsta parable "Clockin' G's." And DJ S&S's treatment of "Fa Ha" -- one eerie, whanging note beneath punchy drumming and the bellowed titled syllables -- is like hip-hop as anime: surreal, exaggerated and unpredictable.

LL Cool J may not be leading a hip-hop revolution, but it's nice to have him in the trenches.

-- Arion Berger

(To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8154.)