The Church Of Me
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Kissing in the churchyard, I know a righteous woman

Wednesday, October 30, 2002
or: Is There Anything The Neptunes Can Do Which Isn’t Visionary?

There’s a new LL Cool J album just out. It’s called 10, because it’s his tenth album, to which he makes numerous references over the course of the record. By my count, it’s the fifth essential LL album, and the first essential one since 18 Shots To The Dome nine years ago. By temporal, if not thematic, standards (no lamenting over divorces here), this is his Blood On The Tracks.

Facile, perhaps, to say that the involvement of the Neptunes in five of the album’s 14 tracks has urged him to raise his game for this album, but it’s hard to over-emphasise just how revitalised LL sounds here. His tenth album sounds so fresh that it might as well be his first. And it’s as well that we remember how extraordinary a break with what even was then the “tradition” of rap that his actual first album Radio was back in 1985; instead of freestyle and therefore inconsistent jams (see the first Sugarhill Gang album for evidence of how turgid this could get sonically), here were sharp, punchy, to the point, song-like constructions, meticulous in their architecture but stripped of middlebrow aspirations to recapture the directness redolent in original rock and roll (Rick Rubin confirmed this in so many words). And the utterly convincing conviction of 1987’s sequel Bigger And Deffer cemented this power; hear the sheer reconstructive joy of “Go Cut Creator Go” as they uncover the original demons and reclaim them – even though, in the hit ballad “I Need Love,” there were already signs of compromise (for an astonishing whiteboy counterpart to the latter, hear Momus’ contemporaneous “Closer To You”). And the single of the same year, “Goin’ Back To Cali,” suggested new harmolodic paths down which rap could travel.

And here, on 10, LL recaptures everything. You could say that he needed to reinstate himself with this album, particularly in view of the supremely confident gauntlet laid down by Jay-Z on The Blueprint (the finest mainstream hip hop album ever?). Here he comes across as Jay-Z’s older but no less powerful brother.

We need to deal with the Neptunes tracks first. “Luv U Better,” already a top ten single, is another in their seemingly endless line of visionary masterpieces (like Trevor Horn in 1981-85, they seem to ooze punctum with everything they do). Remembering the Acieed-anticipating varispeed bells which sounded so radical on 1985’s “Rock The Bells” and distorted and readjusted all our perceptions of what hip hop could do, here the woozy psychedelic guitar wow and flutter of the Neptunes’ backing is worthy to stand beside MBV – indeed, this track could be hip hop’s “To Here Knows When.” “Niggy Nuts” is a haze of a stumble utilising a chirping cricket drone as percussion. “Clockin’ G’s” is a blissfully unresolved shuffle over which LL drunkenly enthuses about “monopoly” and “property.” The vocal refrain of “if you’ve got the time, then I’ve got the time” could almost have come off the second Talking Heads album. “U Should” is a ballad floating over burst rhythmic tyres; “Amazin’” could potentially be the most avant garde summer hit ever; guest singer Kandice Love with her repeated “baby”s is intent on driving the observer orgasmic.

(And there’s another thesis to be written; the importance of “baby” as a term of endearment for and to the Other. I’m with Julia K on this one; it all goes back to a yearning for the maternal body from which we can never fully escape)

But the invention doesn’t stop with the Neptunes. “Paradise” is a Mary Jane Girls-derived pop-soul utopia; the Shangri-Las coming at you from the other side of the River Styx. “Born To Love You” PUNCTUres the Myth of complete absorption into the Other (the uncredited female singer repeatedly attempts to give herself to LL, only to receive the repeated question: “Why?” Which could be interpreted as: what’s so hot about you, or how worthy am I really?).

There are forward thrusts which place LL back on a par with Jay-Z; the near garage punk drive of “Fa Ha,” beats echoing his boasts like hammers on anvils, and in the glorious “10 Million Stars” LL exults in his self-generated euphoria over a sampled mass choir, finding salvation in sensuality. “Throw Ya L’s Up” is old-school R&B twisted into a trellis of Gothic spindles.

And there are other aspects of love to be addressed here. “Lollipop” manages to outweird the Neptunes; over an atonal sonic carpet, LL giggles his way through his sexual fantasies, right through to an adjacent galaxy. The extraordinary “Mirror Mirror” is claustrophobic in its close-up paranoia, LL’s whispered tones conveying uncertainty and fuelled paranoia about his sexuality. Your body carries traces of the track, so closely miked are the beats.

He ends with a tribute to his grandmother “Big Mama (Unconditional Love)” backed by Dru Hill. Necessary tradition and (at)tributes, perhaps, but far easier to swallow than the perverse piety of india.arie, because of course the rest of this remarkable record sets it up as a logical payoff.

posted by Marcello Carlin Permalink
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