Ever since "I Can't Live Without My Radio" floated into the Zeitgeist in 1985, L.L. Cool J has been a superstar. L.L.'s tension-filled performance was so breath-takingly powerful and sexy that few rappers have ever equaled it. Not even L.L.
Eight years later, L.L. fans still love the predictable package of machismo, seductive funk, light humor and urban spirituality he consistently delivers. So his fifth album, 14 Shots to the Dome, won't surprise. If you've heard him before, you know L.L., because the man who once called himself "the future of the funk" has been trapped by his past.
The triple-platinum success of his last album, Mama Said Knock You Out (1990), must have persuaded L.L. to recycle. For instance, the mildly autobiographical brag-laden power jams "Ain't No Stoppin This" and "How I'm Comin'," both among 14's best songs, recall the single "Mama Said Knock You Out," as L.L. flexes his muscles and KO's his competition and critics. Also, the lightheartedly sexual "Pink Cookies in a Plastic Bag Getting Crushed by Buildings" (a euphemism for sex) and "Back Seat" are less focused and less successful versions of "6 Minutes of Pleasure."
L.L. does branch out to voice concern about black male-female relationships in "Stand by Your Man" and all the world's ills in "Diggy Down," which sounds like a street version of a Michael Jackson save-the-world ballad. And the album climaxes with L.L. describing Armageddon in the chilling "Crossroads," which ends with the lines "All your life like so many played the game/Never realized that there's a flame."
There's a lot to like on 14, including "A Little Somethin'" and its huge hook of a sample from King Floyd's soul classic "Groove Me." But something's missing without the B-boy snapshots of hip-hop celebration L.L. captured so well in "Radio" and "The Boomin' System" and of women in "Dear Yvette" and "Around the Way Girl." And something's missing when an artist's evolution between albums is this minimal. That's inexcusable for a veteran rapper whose career is longer in years than many artists' are in months. As delicious as 14 is, it could have been an important album were it not Mama Said, Part II.
And as delicious as 14 is, L.L. still has yet to match his first, now-classic songs "Radio" and "Rock the Bells." Like many pop stars who taste large success early, L.L. may never be able to recapture the hunger of his prefame days and may continue to live in the shadow of those early recordings forever.