Released August 1990
Def Jam Recordings
After his blistering debut RADIO was released in 1985, LL Cool J followed that up with 1987’s BIGGER AND DEFFER which established him as a mainstream rap star. In 1989 he released WALKING WITH A PANTHER, a double-album. While commercially successful, and containing several hits, including the classic GOING BACK TO CALI and memorable BIG OLE BUTT, the album, simply put, just wasn’t very good (which is why I’ve skipped reviewing it). In my opinion it suffered from the same problem that most double-albums face: it would have been better as a shorter single album. Some thought at the time that this singled the end of LL’s relevance as a rap artist, as the rap scene had been moving towards more socially-conscious music, which then swiftly gave way to gangsta rap, both of which made LL’s style of braggadocio lyrics and ladies man imagery seem passe. Well, a year later LL answered all his critics with what many (including me) consider to be his greatest album ever, MAMA SAID KNOCK YOU OUT. Teaming up with legendary rap producer Marley Marl, along with Bobby “Bobcat” Ervin, this album produced 14 tracks, in which LL proved that he wasn’t ready to relinquish his rap crown just yet.
The album opens with the first single, THE BOOMIN’ SYSTEM, an ode to car stereos, over a smooth funky beat, which could be seen as a sequel to his debut single I CAN’T LIVE WITHOUT MY RADIO. The kid had grown up, and now instead of walking around with a boombox in his hands, he blasts his music from his car.
Leanin’ to the side, people everywhere
The trunk full of amps, there ain’t no room for a spare
Big beats bumpin’ with the bass in back
All the sophisticated suckers catch a heart attack
Cos they don’t understand why I act this way
Pumpin’ up the funky beat until the break of day
It’s because I want attention when I’m ridin by
And the girls be on my jock cos my system’s fly
But LL hasn’t forgotten his strongest fanbase: the ladies. He raps about his ideal type of woman in the mellow and romantic 2nd track, AROUND THE WAY GIRL.
The next two tracks are EAT EM UP L CHILL and MR. GOODBAR, both displaying LL’s braggadocio skills, the former about his rap proficiency (I’m unique when I speak to a beat/Another rapper’ll fall when the mission’s complete), the later about his seductive style (Honey coated legs, with not one scar/The stylish wardrobe is up the par/Here’s my number, call me in my car/You deserve a visit from Mr. Goodbar), this is followed by MURDERGRAM, recorded live at some concert, it’s just a freestyle, but it’s a good one. For three and a half minutes LL raps at top speed with raw power (Any emcee who you wanna name, I’m one panther that can’t be tamed). I’ve long thought that LL is often over-looked as a lyricist, rhymes like this show how dope he is.
And then comes what I think is the most creative and inventive song on this album. CHEESY RAT BLUES has LL rapping from the viewpoint of a man was once rich and successful but then lost everything and is now broke. For a rapper who was so used to bragging and boasting in his songs, this was quite an unexpected change. And, most importantly, it’s funny. With lines like:
I used to be rollin’ like a millionaire/Cash in a flash, bankroll to spare
Homeboys hangin’, champagne and girls/Got my main woman Diamonds, my mistress Pearls
Everybody laughin’ at my corny jokes/I was stupid; I thought that they were sincere folks
It turned out they liked the money and the fame/If I ain’t get paid, I’d be that nobody James
Used to have a girl that was on the ball/When the cash flow got low, so did her calls
I had to learn in an incredibly fast way/When you ain’t got no money they treat you like an ashtray
And at one point he’s feel so low that he may be suicidal.
I feel like tying a anchor to my ankle and jumpin’ right in the ocean/Cause I’m ashy and I can’t afford lotion
In FARMER’S BLVD. (OUR ANTHEM) LL collaborates with 3 new rappers from his hometown whom he’s introducing here. The rappers are Bomb, Big Money Grip, and Hi C, none of them seem to have made any impact in the music industry, despite this rather high-profile debut. And, frankly, none of them standout on this track.
And then comes the title track. Backed by Marley Marl’s best beat ever, this was an instant classic. With the opening lyric “Don’t call it a comeback!” becoming an oft-quoted pop culture phrase.
MILKY CEREAL is curious song. It’s about LL meeting three different women all named after popular cereals. In the first verse he meets Frosted Flake (she loved to bowl/And although her skin was white she had a lot of soul) and in the next verse he meets Lucky Charm (For some reason we walked in the rain/She had a four-leaf clover with a big gold chain) and then in the final verse he finally his perfect woman, Pebbles (Her mind was gone, but she turned me on, in fact/She was wearin’ an Apple Jack hat).
And then there’s JINGLING BABY, this was originally a song on Walking With A Panther, where it was more of a hardcore rap song. But Marley Marl, in their first collaboration, remixed it into a party jam and it was released as the last single from that album. So now that remixed version appears here.
TO DA BREAK OF DAWN is a classic diss record, with three verses in which LL goes after rappers Kool Moe Dee and Ice T, both of whom had taken shots at him on record before this, and MC Hammer. I was never sure why he was included, I don’t recall Hammer talking about LL before this. LL could have just been dissing Hammer because of how big Hammer was around this time and a lot of rappers and rap fans thought he wasn’t legit. Anyway, the first target was Kool Moe Dee:
Homeboy, hold on, my rhymes are so strong
Nothing could go wrong, so why do you prolong
Songs that ain’t strong, brother, you’re dead wrong
And got the nerve to have them Star Trek shades on
And then M.C. HAMMER
Stop dancin, get to walkin’
Shut your old mouth when young folks is talkin’
Huh, you little snake in the grass
You swing a hammer, but you couldn’t break a glass
And he saves his harshest lines for ICE T
But I’m a drink you down over the rocks
While the freak on your album cover jocks
You’re gonna hear a real ill paragraph soon
I took the cover right home to the bathroom
In the immortal words of L.L., ‘hard as hell’
Your broad wears it well
She’s the reason that your record sold a few copies
But your rhymes are sloppy
The final three songs are 6 MINUTES OF PLEASURE, a mellow track for the ladies, ILLEGAL SEARCH a rap about racial profiling, and then he shows off his spiritual side in THE POWER OF GOD, all of which are decent songs.
Marley Marl’s stellar production seemed to be the shot in the arm the LL needed to revitalize his style. He was exactly the collaborator needed at this stage in his career, same as Rick Rubin was on the first album. Like I said, LL answers all his critics with this album, showing us all why he’s one of the best.