By 1989, twenty-one year old James Todd Smith had two platinum selling albums under his belt and was a bona-fide rap star. While Radio‘s revolutionary sound was the cornerstone to building the Def Jam empire and James career, his follow-up BAD (on the strength of the rap ballad “I Need Love”) brought the crossover success and rocketed his star power into the stratosphere. With loads of money, the world in his hands, haters in every direction, and more pussy than one man’s testosterone can handle (if that’s possible), the hip-hop world waited in great anticipation to see what the Kangol’d one would do next. Well, maybe not the whole hip-hop world but at least New York.
In attempt to please the heads, ladies, and radio, Uncle L unleashed Walking With A Panther in 89′. Cool James and Dwayne Simon, formerly of the LA Posse (who handled production duties on BAD) would handle the bulk of production duties with a little help from a few legendary hip-hop producers (more on that later). Walking With A Panther did sell over a million units but received mixed reviews, largely do to his blatant pop attempts and cheesy rap ballads.
But is there enough substance to offset the fatty extras?
Droppin’ Em – Cool James comes out the gates with guns blazing, spitting battle rhyme after battle rhyme, which seems to go on for 20 verses (and that’s not a complaint). LL & Dwayne Simon’s raw instrumental makes for a nice backdrop for Uncle L’s spitfire. This was a nice way to start the show.
Smokin’ Dopin’ – No, this isn’t a say no to drugs message. Instead, LL and Dwayne cook up a smooth instrumental for L to put his flow on cruise control and simply ride this track like I-94 on a Sunday afternoon. You have to give L props when it comes to versatility: he can go from a hardcore scream, to a composed smooth tone, to a vulnerable-lover man whisper, at the drop of a dime (making his move to acting a natural transition). In spite of the corny song title (which other than it being the first words LL utters on this song has nothing to do with the song) and matching hook, this was a pretty solid joint.
Fast Peg – Over a skeleton instrumental LL spits one verse relaying a story about Peg, would loves to speed. Peg, who’s man is in the mob, doubling as her pimp, eventually becomes a victim to her (and his) life in the fast lane. Trust me, this sounds more interesting with me describing it than it does when you actually listening to it.
Clap Your Hands – Over a simple drum beat and live guitar licks provided by Billy “Spaceman” Patterson, L’s back in battle mode spitting lines to back the statement that his last album title claimed. Apparently Cool James is a contortionists, as he claims he’s able to give himself head, which is both comical and disturbing at the same time. All in all this was just okay.
Nitro – LL rips the heart out of this Bomb Squad (well, at least two-thirds of the Bomb Squad) produced track. The hard beat meshes beautifully with L’s vocal as he goes into scream mode and comes off like he’s in a UFC bout with the instrumental. Uncle L comes out the victor, turning in some of his best battle rhymes to date. This serves as a reminder to why LL is considered one of the best to ever do it.
You’re My Heart – Wow. How do you transition from “Nitro” into this crap? But what would a Cool James album be without a rap ballad? Ladies Love makes a blatant attempt to secure a female fan base (which I can’t even see ladies falling for this crap), as he throws actual rhyming to the wind, and talks (adding in an occasional psychotic scream) his way through verses trying to convince his lady to stay because she’s the only one for him, with a little “if you leave me I’ll kill you and myself” undertone. The sappy instrumental doesn’t help matters either. This was really bad, dude.
I’m That Type Of Guy – Cool James stays in spoken word mode, spending almost 5 minutes to, slowly, explain why he was able to bone your girl, while highlighting your shortcomings and his virtues (which include him seasoning “it” before he eats it… you’ll never look at Lawry’s the same way). Some of L’s lines are amusing but the empty space in between their delivery is similar to Bobby Brown’s teeth when he smiles. This was actually a single released off the album. The instrumental is bangin’, which is really frustrating when considering Cool James would have been more than capable of ripping this beat to shreds.
Why Do You Think They Call It Dope? – Over a funky instrumental Ladies Love gets things pointed back in the right direction, turning in some pretty solid battle rhymes. At one point L spits a portion of his lines a capella, doing his best Twista impression which fails miserably, but props for taking chances. Other than that small misstep this was pretty enjoyable.
Going Back To Cali – This Rick Rubin produced track was another single released from Walking With A Panther. And like “I’m That Type Of Guy” Cool James goes into spoken word mode over a dope instrumental. The song feels like Uncle L dumbed down his lyrics exchanging his soul for worldly gain. This is probably the most popular song on Walking With A Panther, and while the instrumental and hook are catchy, it’s far from LL’s best work.
It Gets No Rougher – This time the entire Bomb Squad chips in to concoct this effective instrumental which sounds a little empty by Bomb Squad standards, who normally have so much chaos going on within their instrumentals that if armageddon had a soundtrack they would be the perfect choice to produce it. But what the track lacks, Uncle L’s booming vocal more than makes up for, filling in the gaps and turning in a solid performance. This was pretty dope.
Big Ole Butt – This is the third single (I believe) released from the album. L and Dwayne Simon whip up a track that sounds like something EPMD could have produced. LL turns in three verses about his weakness: ladies with ill hind features. While LL isn’t mentioned in the discussion of great storytelling emcees, he turns in a brilliant performance over this banger of an instrumental, painting three detailed verses that you can close your eyes and visualize the scenarios playing out (which amazingly enough look just like the video for this song in my head). This is hot!
One Shot At Love – Bang! And just like that, Walking With A Panther‘s upward momentum is shot down. I guess one sappy rap ballad wasn’t enough for the one the ladies love, so he waste more of the listener’s life with this crap. Cool James shares his philosophy on love, breaking love into two categories: physical love (isn’t that lust) and mental love. Mental love? Really? Sounds like something you’d call an in love couple with down syndrome. Needless to say, this was terrible.
1-900-L.L. Cool J – Cool James is back in battle mode as he smoothly dismantles his adversaries over this dope instrumental, even taking a brief intermission to explain how he likes his skinz, before completing the task he started at the beginning of the song. This was nice, but not nice enough to help me forget the debacle that was “One Shot At Love”.
Two Different Worlds – WTF! Todd Smith clearly suffers from bi-polar disorder. How else do you explain him sandwiching aggressive battle rhymes in between to soft and corny rap ballads without winking (whoever was responsible for the sequencing of Walking With A Panther should be executed ASAP). Cool James spits elementary rhymes while a tone-deaf Cydne’ Monet turns in a painful vocal on her verse and the hook (dude, her singing made my ears bleed). This is officially when 90 percent of his fan base became those of the heel wearing population (I see you Canibus!).
Jealous – Cool James snaps out of his “lover man” persona and get back into emcee mode. Over his funky but smooth instrumental (that uses the same sample that Nas would later use on “Dr. Knockboots”), Uncle L lays in the cut sending a message to all those haters (i.e. MC Shan, Kool Moe Dee, Ice-T) suffering from a bad case of jealousy. This was actually pretty nice.
Jingling Baby – The remix of this song (which contains the same lyrics as this version with a few edits to make it suitable for radio play) was released as a single (and used in the video) and included on LL’s follow-up Momma Said Knock You Out. While this version is solid, Marley Marl added just enough bells and whistles to make the remix sound worlds better than the original.
Def Jam In The Motherland – Over an instrumental that uses the same sample used on EPMD’s “It’s Time To Party” (although not to much better effect), Uncle L completely destroys this beat, turning in one his best lyrical performances of the evening. Although the title and hook have absolutely nothing to do with the verses, this was still dope.
Change Your Ways – LL dumbs down his lyrics (again) and sacrifices his normally solid flow, in favor of this sloppy work which plays like a corny hip-hop interpretation of “We Are The World”. Cool James provides a naive message that if we simply change are ways the world would be perfect and we would live happily ever after. This is one of very few songs in Cool James catalog that can loosely be categorized as “conscious”. Maybe he took heed to Ice-T’s advice and felt it was time to write at least one song with substance. What ever the reason, this was a corny and terrible way to end this roller coaster ride of an album, which left my stomach feeling a little upset.
Walking With A Panther was clearly Cool James attempt to be all things to all people: mixing hardcore raps, soft cornball rap ballads, and a few dumbed down radio friendly joints to secure record sales. The production on Walking With A Panther is pretty solid (even on the intentional pop attempts “I’m That Type Of Guy” and “Going Back To Cali”) and LL provides plenty of examples to prove his lyrical ability is still intact. While L’s pop attempts are bearable (depending on your mood on the day your listening to them) the painfully bad rap ballads are unforgivable, and when coupled with the other handful of mishaps, the album begins to wobble, similar to Dom Cobb’s totem at the end of Inception, ending abruptly and leaving you to draw your own conclusion on whether or not it stands up or completely topples over once the scene ends. Thank God Cool James found his appetite and came back starving on his follow-up Momma Said Knock You, regaining the fans he lost after Walking With A Panther. Temporarily, at least.