Rap hero L.L. Cool J still remembers the moment last year when he took a look at the cover of his last album, "Walking With a Panther," and didn't like what he saw.
There was a picture of him, living large with his cellular phone at his ear, his trademark Kangol threads and gold chains, champagne and three drop-dead gorgeous women.
Recalling the moment recently, the 22-year-old New Yorker said the image bothered him so much that he began to re-evaluate both his music and his life.
"You can't get caught up with what you think is cool," he says now. "You have to take into consideration what other people feel.
"I think I was doing that up to the point where I put out that 'Panther' album . . . but then I went off the deep end with champagne and girls . . . thinking people liked to see me (that way). But that's not right. They like my music. What does that (photo) have to do with rap and the street? That wasn't me."
He wasn't the only one troubled by the image. Some fans, too, seemed put off.
Sales of "Panther" exceeded a million copies--still enough to keep it on the charts, but disappointing when measured against the 6 million combined sales of his two earlier albums.
L.L. had dazzled the New York world as a teen-ager in 1985 with his innovative blend of smart rhymes with a tough rocker's edge. Even more than Run-DMC, he looked like the one who'd unite the rap and rock communities: the first superstar of rap.
But things change fast on the rap scene and there was already loud whispering after the release of "Panther" that L.L. had blown it. One problem: Much of the sexual bravado and egocentric boasting that had sounded so commanding originally were now bordering on parody. If you couldn't hear it in the raps, you could see it in that album photo.
On the title cut of his new "Mama Said Knock You Out" album, L.L. warns against calling the new release a comeback, but there's no other way to look at it.
The self-evaluation of the last year is evident from the stark black-and-white cover photo of his bare torso (the heavy gold chain and huge "Cool J" ring smack more of defiance than decadence) to the raps themselves.
The most notable of the latter is the self-mocking "Cheesy Rat Blues," in which a character named Todd recounts the dangers of an ego out of control. Also significant is the closing "The Power of God," a distinct contrast to the boasts that still characterize many of his raps, including the leering "Milky White Cereal," a remix of "Jingling Baby" and the M.C. Hammer dis of "To Da Break of Dawn."
And everybody's talking about the album in terms of comeback. Rolling Stone magazine's review of the album noted that L.L. "needed to change his rap this time" and had done so to great effect. The Village Voice's Robert Christgau, awarding the album an A grade, called it the product of a "proud pro with something to prove."
While not everyone agrees that "Mama" is a step forward (see reviews on Page 59), the public appears impressed. The album has shot to No. 17 in its third week on the national pop charts.
"It's flattering for people to say comeback and veteran and pioneer ," the rapper said. "I don't want those trophies, the longevity and comeback trophies. I just want people to know I've been here for years and continue to make my music.
"When Mike Tyson gets his belt back and they call it a comeback that's not disrespect. But don't call it a comeback,
good or bad."
L.L. Cool J has been compared to a young Muhammad Ali, and not just for the brash personality. He's a nimble poet who can mesmerize you with clever wordplay before sending you to the canvas with a punch you never saw coming.
Though his best work has been collaborative (such as his 1985 debut, produced by Rick Rubin, and his partnership with Marley Marl for the new album), L.L. is something of a lone wolf in hip-hop.
He's one of the last practitioners of the old-school style that's based more in competitive street-corner rhyming than studio craft. And though he says he's largely abandoned his heavy jewelry, he hasn't replaced it with the Afrika medallions and attendant cultural consciousness that now pervade the rap world.
"Nothing wrong with African-American political consciousness, but you have to feel it from the heart," he said. "I know I'm black and do what I do from the heart. But I'm in the world of L.L. and that's all I concentrate on."
L.L. was raised in St. Albans, Queens, just blocks from the members of Run-DMC. Turned on by the early raps of groups like the Sugarhill Gang and Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five, he was making up raps by the time he was 9.