LL Cool J, Please Break Up
I take a musclebound man and put his face in the sand
There was one line in Canibus's "2nd Round Knockout" that always sort of confused me: "From Ice-T to Kool Moe Dee to Jay-Z / Now you wanna battle me? You must be crazy." LL Cool J's past problems with Ice-T and Kool Moe Dee had been well-documented and celebrated, but Canibus recorded "2nd Round Knockout" in 1997, when Jay was still ascendant, only a year after he'd released Reasonable Doubt. So when had LL ever tangled with Jay? When would he have even had time to do that? These days, a quick round of Googling reveals the answer: LL and Jay had apparently battled each other at an early-90s record-industry party, back when Jay was still Jaz-O's hypeman. Ten years ago, that line was full of mystery; it implied all sorts of shady back-room head-butting, the sort of thing that Canibus could only hint at even as he viciously pounded away at every chink in LL's armor. Now, an industry-party battle is one thing, but LL spent years publicly feuding with Ice-T and Kool Moe Dee and a ton of other rappers, and it's fun to contemplate what might've happened if he'd really blasted Jay when both of them had gas left in their tanks. These days, though, a potential feud between Jay-Z and LL Cool J doesn't mean a whole lot. At this point, it's almost become cool for rappers to take shots at Jay-Z. Worst case scenario: Jay completely ignores all taunts and you wind up getting a bunch of press over it. Best case: Jay feebly swings back and ends up making you look like a tactical genius; that's what happened with Jim Jones. Jay isn't going to end your career; he's too busy renegotiating Richard Jefferson's contract or posing for the cover of Vanity Fair or whatever. There's really no downside. So it's tough not to get misty-eyed now that LL has just become the most recent rapper to lash out against Jay-Z; imagine what might've been.
I was really amped when I first read about the existence of "Queens," the new posse cut on which LL shares mic-time with 50 Cent and Prodigy and Kool G Rap and, um, Tony Yayo. Back in the mid-90s, LL was pretty far along in his metamorphosis from mic-ripping monster to oiled-up lip-licking loverman embarrassment, but he'd usually devote one track per album to rounding up the hardest, hungriest rappers around and spitting fire alongside them. It was almost as if he wanted to remind us that he still knew how to do this. The "I Shot Ya" remix and "4, 3, 2, 1" remain two of my favorite posse cuts from an era that was insanely rich with them. (LL's verse on the "Flava in Ya Ear" remix and even that "Fatty Girl" Fubu song both sort of fit here, but on both of those songs LL's job was to provide a smoothness that would've been missing otherwise, whereas on his own tracks he was free to go as hard as he wanted.) Over the years, though, LL totally abandoned that impulse, preferring to exclusively deal in toothless club-jams and treacly love-raps. Last year's Todd Smith had a pretty good Freeway collaboration that at least felt like a step in the right direction, but he'd spent so long descending into obsolete Muscles & Fitness-cover hell that it didn't matter much. When LL announced that 50 Cent would be exec-producing his final Def Jam album, I wasn't sure how to take it. Both of these guys had displayed hall-of-fame rapping abilities in the past, but both of them shared unfortunate proclivities toward constant shirtlessness, and both of them were coming off of losing streaks. So 50 Cent could either reanimate LL's career and maybe his own in the process, or he could pull LL down into his black hole. Judging by "Queens," it's going to be the latter.
The song had a good idea: using 50's connection to round up a near-impeccable lineup of borough veterans and bringing everyone back to the gutter. But instead, the track succumbs to the sort of fatigue that's plagued virtually every latter-day G-Unit project. The beat is the sort of anemic, sleepy organ-based chug that should've ended up on the Hot Rod album, not the adrenal rattler that all these guys demand. In leadoff position, Prodigy, who had a particularly fierce verse on the "I Shot Ya" remix, sounds like he'd rather be dropping acid and watching Ringo Lam movies, letting loose a few perfunctory lines and then disappearing. 50, for the millionth time, sings too much. It's great to hear G Rap again, and he's definitely convincingly hard, but he practically ignores the beat and ends up sounding not that different from all the garden-variety mixtape guys he's influenced; it's a bit like how Pearl Jam sort of sounds like Nickelback these days. The only person who sounds like he's having any fun at all, improbably enough, is Tony Yayo. Yayo sings half his verse to the tune of Michael Jackson's "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'," a pretty ridiculous thing to do when you're rhyming Luger with Krueger. And even though Yayo sucks, at least he's trying, more than I can say for all those other guys. The big news about LL's verse is that he finally lashes out explicitly at Jay. LL's mad that Todd Smith didn't do well: "The promotion and marketing wasn't worth a damn / Now they on the balls again because 50 my man?" Of course, LL at least got to release an album in the last couple of years, more that we can say of plenty of his Def Jam labelmates like Freeway or Joe Budden. And if LL wanted people to buy his album, maybe he should've made a good album; just a thought. Either way, "Queens" doesn't promise much, either from a new LL album or from an LL/Jay-Z feud. Maybe Exit 13 will turn out to be worthwhile after all, especially if the rumored collaboration with G Rap and DJ Premier actually materializes. But right now, I can't shake the impression that LL should retire already so that we can worship him like an old battleship.