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The analogy: LL Cool J is to hiphop as Cal Ripken Jr. is to baseball. He’s the iron horse of the verbal arena. Ditch all the platinum-plated players, the cognac-swilling ghetto epicures, the assorted canines, the hot boyz, the countrified pimp poseurs—and the last man standing will be the Double L. In a field where the average career spans an entire one-and-a-half albums, the senior rapper from Queens looks like hiphop’s version of Methuselah. LL has ranked as first-string in this game since way back in the Jurassic Era of the mid-’80s. Take a look at the autopsied careers of his peers—Run-DMC, Whodini, Slick Rick—and it becomes clear just how long the self-professed phenomenon has been delivering couplets to the boulevard masses. And it ain’t like he’s been relying on rhymes to pay the rent all these years, either. Flicks, sitcoms, the occasional photo shoot: Add it up. The man is a bona fide multimedia don.

The dilemma: Hiphop is predicated on hunger, an aesthetic carved out of the empty existence in post-hope America. The user-friendly, big-brother persona that kept In the House on the TV screen had the young guns thinking LL had gone soft around the middle. Fact is, the big man’s mainstream appeal has left him with a deficit of street cred—and what shall it profit a rapper if he gains the world and loses the streets? To judge from the tone and timbre of G.O.A.T.: The Greatest of All Time, he’s heard the whispers and hand-delivered an opus to still the doubtful tongues.

The truth: For a decade and a half, LL has crafted the type of ego-laced classics that only a man reveling in his own legend could even conceive. And the hook was, no matter how grandiose the claim, his uncontested skills made him damn near believable. It’s a testament to LL’s colossal hubris that he could conceive of yet another comeback release and title it G.O.A.T. In this case, the acronym stands for his self-declared ranking as the “Greatest of All Time.” And like 1991’s Mama Said Knock You Out, or 14 Shots to the Dome three years later, this disc is loaded with vainglorious indignation for all who prematurely wrote him off. LL has never been lacking in self-esteem: I bear witness to the man handing out autographs in eighth-grade homeroom, telling us to hold onto them because he was “gonna be real famous.”

This release features the same blend of self-reverence, verbal erotica, and hyperbolic threats issued at his underlings that garnered him nine platinum releases in the past 15 years. Only this time, he’s out to prove that he’s still got edge. Rare are the flashes of maturity and perspective that highlighted 1997’s Phenomenon and his book, I Make My Own Rules. The themes for this effort: sex and violence. G.O.A.T. might just be the hardest set of utterances that LL has put out in the ’90s. When he isn’t about the business of putting rivals in their place, he’s trading in coital repartee.

Take a minute to listen to G.O.A.T. and you’ll find it hard to believe that this is the same man whom people turned to for wise commentary in the wake of Notorious B.I.G.’s murder. Matter of fact, the Glock-and-blunt index on this epic is high enough to warrant an NC-17. And this time out, he has drafted a whole catalog of his descendants. The credits read like a lyrical all-star squad: DMX, Jah Rule, Method Man, Redman, and Snoop. Add Kelly Price and Carl Thomas on vocals, and this project starts to feel like a “who’s-hot” compilation.

Aesthetically, G.O.A.T. is one of only a handful of projects with multiple producers that maintains a level of consistency. LL turned to Trackmasters, Funkmaster Flex, DJ Scratch, and Adam F. for production, and, for the most part, he’s gotten his money’s worth. Damn near every track on the release is a candidate for heavy ghetto rotation, with the possible exception of the underseasoned title track.

That said, G.O.A.T. is pure adrenaline-rush hiphop. From the melodic, horn-laced intro to the Funkmaster Flex-engineered bonus track, LL crafts enough head-spinning lines to give a brother vertigo. Case in point: the absurdly thick “Back Where I Belong.” Backed by an ominous, trademark gong and a three-note guitar riff, LL runs roughshod over his fallen nemesis Canibus. Wasn’t too long ago that LL’s status in the upper rankings of the game was unassailable, having weathered verbal wars with an entire generation of rap vets. But Canibus’ lyrical assault and battery of the old master on his self-titled debut left questions to be answered. This time out, LL assigns Canibus to the trashbin of used-up MCs, rhyming, “I hate to be responsible for destroying your career/A one-hit wonder, no wonder you disappeared.” On the malevolent “Queens Is” he charges that “I’m here to break niggas skulls open/And fuck your head up/More than that shit you’re smoking.”

On “Imagine That” the rapper returns to the sex-fantasizing talk that blew “Doing It Well” up the charts. Backed by a mellowed-out R&B track punctuated by ecstatic sighs, LL rhapsodizes about workplace sex, rhyming that he’ll “take you over to the copy machine/And make copies of your kitten with my chin in between.” Later, he enlists Jay-Z’s protegé Amil to breathlessly trade rhymes with him on “Hello,” his ode to phone sex. He turns reflective on “Homicide,” a death meditation led by the hook “I don’t mean this in a disrespectful way/But Columbine happens in the ghetto every day/And when the shit goes down y’all ain’t got nothin’ to say.” But in the wake of the preceding tracks, crafted for the blunted and strapped, lines such as “Queen’s finest/But there’s one minus/The bodies left on the battlefield behind us” come off as hollow and sanctimonious.

Could be that we’ve come to expect too much from this rap icon? But G.O.A.T., for all the grass-roots glory and greenbacks it’ll ring up for LL, ultimately sounds like a step backward. The real question always was: What shall it profit a rapper if he gains the streets and loses his soul? CP