Walking With A Panther

Aesthetically speaking, L.L. Cool J probably couldn't have picked a worse time to release Walking With a Panther, his long-awaited third album. In 1987, the rapper's brash Bigger and Deffer set new standards for rap music. Before then, who would have thought rap could incorporate doo-wop, lush balladry ("I Need Love"), even a rewrite of "Johnny B. Goode"? In the two years since, the rules have changed drastically. Rap now encompasses everything from psychedelia to metal, and its most gripping lyrics make the Dirty Harry movies seem tame. L.L.'s response? "I'm so bad," he sings on "Clap Your Hands," "I can suck my own dick."

If that sounds familiar, it should. Walking With a Panther's sixteen cuts (bonus tracks on the CD and cassette) basically cover the same turf as Bigger and Deffer. The ballad is back, not once but three times ("Two Different Worlds," "You're My Heart," "One Shot at Love"), and so are the boasts. At least half of Panther is the de rigueur I'm-the-baddest stuff, in which L.L. disses other rappers ("Droppin' Em," "Clap Your Hands") and salutes his own phone line ("1-900 L.L. Cool J"). "I'm That Type of Guy" is a new boast classic: Over a pumping bass line and a menacing sustained piano chord, a very nonchalant L.L. lays claim, in one of his slyest vocals, to any woman around, including yours ("I'm the type of guy to leave my drawers in your hamper," he warns). In contrast, his one stab at social commentary, "Fast Peg," speeds by in 1:37, as if he didn't want to dampen any spirits.

Thankfully, L.L. still realizes the value of production, and he's made Panther the best-sounding record of his career. Working as his own producer for the first time (with help from Dwayne Simon), he's concocted a dizzying array of sounds: gothic-horror-film synths ("You're My Heart"), head-to-the-wall funk ("Nitro," "It Gets No Rougher," "Why Do You Think They Call It Dope?"), spare rhythm tracks ("Smokin', Dopin'") and, most intriguing, jazzy electric piano and sax ("Def Jam in the Motherland"). He's also devised rap's answer to the country cheatin' song, the crude, albeit very funny, "Big Ole Butt."

That's all well and good, and Walking With a Panther bodes well for L.L.'s career as a rap auteur. But with so much happening outside of the recording studio and on the streets, is being the boaster with the mostest enough?