LL Cool J, 'Todd Smith' (Def Jam)

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Todd Smith
Critical Mass
Label: Def Jam

by Sean Fennessey

James Todd Smith could've hung up his Kangol years ago, but while subgenres come and go, and young scrappers slip in and out of favor, the Queens MC legend carries on. He's perfected a formula -- wet-lipped ballads sprinkled with the occasional club banger featuring a young MC -- that's kept his career surprisingly viable. Hell, LL dropped a greatest-hits record a decade ago. This isn't a career; it's an epoch.

His 11th album opens with the furious "It's LL and Santana," a surprisingly harmonious duet with chirpy Harlem crack-rapper Juelz Santana. Young also meets old on the brassy, brass-filled "What You Want," with pneumatic Philly MC Freeway wheezing the bold assertion "He's Shaq and I'm Dwayne Wade." In fact, guest rappers appear on every song but one, an indication that LL may be running out of things to say as he nears his 40s. His muscular loverman approach is on full display (the techno-bass single "Control Yourself" with J.Lo), but the static beats of hit-making producers Scott Storch and Trackmasters do little to freshen up his sound. The album's centerpiece, "Freeze" -- a spare plea to a lover with the chorus "Freeze, don't change" (sung by Lyfe Jennings) -- sounds like it could be LL's business and artistic sides arguing. For now, there's no doubt who's winning.

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