Even his die-hard fans know the truth: L.L. Cool J needed to change his rap this time out. Blithe one-liners like "I'm so bad I can suck my own dick" dragged 1989's musically fierce Walking With a Panther into self-parody. His fourth album probably won't win any public-service awards, but L.L. Cool J's rhymes and rhythms have developed by leaps and bounds. Mama Said Knock You Out deepens the groove, uplifting the general tone of the proceedings without losing the humorous arrogance that makes James Todd Smith tick.
L.L.'s still about as subtle as a bomb: When he goes off, he explodes. "To Da Break of Dawn" hurls a stream of invective at M.C. Hammer, but without the help of producer Marley Marl, L.L.'s broadside would probably bounce off Hammer's burnished faÃ§ade. Marl's scratch mix points up Hammer's musical sloth; throughout the album, this veteran New York City DJ takes a handful of instrumental samples and shuffles them into something fresh and funky. These dense but always melodic constructions give L.L. the reinforcement he needs to expand his verbal frame of reference.
L.L. Cool J hasn't stopped expounding on himself, of course. Mama is thickly webbed with self-references: killer lines from older L.L. cuts, previews of tracks that appear later on the album, ironic bites from other rappers' lyrics. What's different is the gently self-mocking tone of "The Boomin' System," the compelling narrative movement of "Cheesy Rat Blues," the quiet outrage of "Illegal Search," the calm resolve of "The Power of God."
That last number may well be the first gospel rap, but L.L. hasn't turned into a preacher just yet. He still knows how to run his mouth; the blistering all-the-way-live "Murdergram (Live at Rapmania)" never stops for breath, reminding us that hip-hop thrived as club music long before anybody rapped on record. "Farmers Blvd. (Our Anthem)" takes us even further back, to the days when rappers competed on street corners, improvising rhymes and trading insults. Stopping just short of nostalgia, L.L. and his buddies capture the joyful, communal buzz of pioneer rap groups like Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. Mama Said Knock You Out may not represent the cutting edge of rap's future, but it proves that L.L. Cool J knows where he's going — partially, at least, because, despite his oversize ego, he hasn't forgotten where he began.