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L.L. COOL J, Exit 13, Def Jam
The legend listened. After his last effort, Todd Smith, fell flat with our critics, we asked L.L. to dump the guests and deliver a truly solo hardcore rap album. And he did. But it was a mixtape, not Exit 13. Apparently, James Todd Smith doesn't think that version of L.L. would sell anymore. But what he needs to realize is that it's always been that L.L. that sold. Sure, he had plenty of R&B-tinged hits that justified his stage name, but the hard stuff kept people coming back. Think Bigger and Deffer. Mama Said Knock You Out. "I Shot Ya." That's what The Return of the G.O.A.T. was. But Exit 13? It shows some signs, but L.L. didn't fully commit. He opens with "It's Time for War," which hints that he's angry about the reception his last album received: "I always shine brighter when I'm under attack/ I might go down for a moment but I always go back." He also declares that "this is a resurrection" and for a moment, you allow yourself to believe him. After the chorus drags on a bit on that first track, "Old School New School" seems to keep the theme going before L.L. starts swinging episodes on escapades like "Feel My Heart Beat" again. A collabo with 50 Cent? Not necessary unless he planned to dismantle him on wax like he did so many others in their prime. "Baby" is okay once -- although a truck stop bathroom is no Burger King -- but for some reason the rock remix follows the original just three tracks later. Exit 13 still has its moments, like "Get Over Here," a high-speed showcase that leaves his up-and-comers "out of breath," and the "retro" "You Better Watch Me," complete with the "get busy, y'all" and "awww" from "I'm Bad" samples. On "Ur Only a Customer," L.L. says, "This is flawless rap, you can't call this wack." The latter might be true, but the former is a stretch. It's far from flawless. It's somewhere in between. Overall it falls short of what we hoped, especially toward the second half. "I Fall in Love" provides a beat A La Turka's Friday night belly dancers can get down to, while his patriotic doubleheader goes from criticizing to celebrating America in the span of two songs. The album closes on a high note, as "Dear Hip-Hop" shows his love for the music. A Jam Master Jay tribute and an MC Shan sample are icing on the Cool J cake. But the center needed to be creamier. We upped his rating two notches this time because thankfully it's actually tolerable to listen to -- as opposed to his last album. So he's halfway to a classic. We now know he still has it in him. Bring the mixtape L.L. out of the shadows and back into the spotlight, and you might recapture the glory years again, Mr. Smith. As this is intended to be L.L.'s last album for Def Jam, maybe he's saving his best for the next record company. If he is, then next time out we'll be able to call it a comeback with no repurcussions. Because even if he has been here for years, the L.L. we know and love has gone missing on his latest studio albums. Exit 13 only gives us a glimpse of the G.O.A.T.
Click here to find out how to buy this album.

-- Mason Storm

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