Phenomenon

Self-styled hip-hop puritans reserve special disdain for Top 40 success stories like Salt-n-Pepa and L.L. Cool J. So on the occasion of SNP's fifth record, Brand New, and L.L. Cool J's seventh, Phenomenon, let's get a few things straight: Not only are Salt-n-Pepa and L.L. Cool J as legitimate as hip-hop comes, but in terms of hitmaking ability, longevity, self-loving sexiness and joie de vivre, the two acts have only each other as peers. They also share Queens, N.Y., roots.

Through their decade-plus careers, SNP and L.L. have never forgotten the primary mission of hip-hop: to bring people to their feet and keep them there. Although both Phenomenon and Brand New address such issues as abuse, family violence and the generally sorry state of the world, the rubber-band bass that bounces both albums testifies to the importance of the dance floor.

It's been four years since Cheryl "Salt" James, Sandi "Pepa" Denton and DJ Dee Dee "Spinderella" Roper delivered the hit-packed Very Necessary, and the pent-up feeling comes rushing out with Brand New's first beats. "R U Ready" kicks things off with full-on Jeep-beat vibrations suitable for rattling windows and packing dance floors. James and Denton are as tight as Queens spandex, filling out each other's rhymes, trading stories, finishing each other's sentences.

After years in the shadow of producer Hurby "Luv Bug" Azor, who put them on wax for the first time as a class project, James and Denton took over production on Brand New. The result is a richer piano-, guitar- and vocal-filled sound, emphasizing gritty soul and sweet, unadulterated funk. "Say Ooh" and "Do Me Right" are nearly Quiet Storm in their velvety polish, while "Gitty Up" makes good use of Rick James' nasty "Give It to Me Baby," and "Boy Toy" rides a G-funk bass line to a hot-buttered chorus. Under their own direction, SNP go further afield for their inspiration, getting gospel with singer Kirk Franklin on "Hold On" and tapping Sheryl Crow to wail and pant on the groovilicious rock of "Imagine."

Throughout Brand New, James and Denton revel in clothes, cars and Blue Hawaiians by the pool ("Easy on the liquor part," Denton cautions). But as materialistic as SNP get, reality is never far behind — witness the upfront discussions of AIDS, self-esteem and plain life struggles. They're equally real about love, never slow to kick a man to the curb if he isn't pulling his weight. James is the romantic while Denton is more the realist, but they're two sides of the same coin — role models — painting an explicit picture of womanhood that is conscious and complete, encapsulating love, work, sex, spirituality, motherhood and politics.

It's their deeply felt — yet superfreaky — meditations on the opposite sex that most closely link L.L. and SNP; despite their mutual affinities for Lexuses and such, they would all rather spend the afternoon falling in love than shopping. As SNP tweak traditional gender roles with their aggressive approach to l'amour, L.L. tweaks them right back, playing the ultrasensitive lovesick pup who doesn't hesitate to bare his heart. He may be the only male rapper who regularly addresses his songs to women, and they listen, because, in an L.L. Cool J song, a girl hears herself treated like a queen by a complex, intense guy whose whole purpose in life seems to be pleasing her.

The love zone is where L.L. dominates on this album — listen to "Candy" and "Nobody Can Freak You" — but he's also comfortable in his own personal big-willie world, where he "runs games from Fort Greene to Maine" and keeps "your head nodding like dope is in your veins." Though some have questioned L.L.'s skills since he got his own sitcom and started hawking jeans for the Gap, he holds his own against certifiable heavyweights Busta Rhymes (on "Starsky and Hutch"), and Method Man and Redman (both on "4, 3, 2, 1").

But Phenomenon's most intense moment is neither a love story nor a mack fantasy. In the true story "Father," which employs a sample from George Michael's "Father Figure" amplified by a heavenly choir, L.L. describes seeing his father shoot his mother and grandfather when L.L. was only 4 years old (they both lived). His strong, honey-smooth voice moves the story forward, steadily revealing the scene of horror and pain.

Phenomenon's main drawback is that the insight behind L.L.'s words isn't matched by originality in his music, which is full of competent grooves but little else. L.L. fans won't care — they expect danceable Don Juan urbanity from James Todd Smith, not groundbreaking hip-hop. The same goes for Salt-n-Pepa, whose do-it-yourself machisma excites fans more than their musical innovation.

And that's the point. Knowing their strengths, L.L. and Salt-n-Pepa push themselves lyrically while settling for music that will simply move your ass. Both artists are masters at distilling on wax the intensity, desire and release of the dance floor. Forget the headphones and the home entertainment system: It's on the dance floor that Phenomenon and Brand New come alive — and where they should be judged. Let the rap snobs mope on the sidelines.

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