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Beat Baggage

Your mouth is contorted into a G. Dubya--worthy smirk. Your mind is flooded with the sights and scents of your adolescence: your senior prom, that dash through the girls‘ locker room, cutting class to swig a 40-ounce Private Stock on your first brew run. In your hands is the latest album from 15-year veteran L.L. Cool J -- G.O.A.T. Featuring James T. Smith: The Greatest of All Time.

You feel a little conflicted about how you just spent your $18. You could’ve got the Ludacris joint, or the new Capone-N-Noreaga. But you bought L.L. You hated his last album, that lackluster Phenomenon. You‘re not even checking for that strictly-for-the-ladies, Rockwilder-produced lead single, “Imagine That.” You bought L.L. anyway. You tear the plastic on the compact disc with your car keys, and your mental floodgates collapse. You pace your bedroom searching for your headphones, reminiscing about the first time you heard L.L. Cool J on the radio.

You’re back at your high school cafeteria, circa 1985. Everyone at your table is talking about DJ Chuck Chillout‘s Saturday-night mix, about U.T.F.O.’s “Roxanne Roxanne,” and how Rox had those brothers in deep check. You mention “I Need a Beat,” by L.L. Kool Jay or somebody; you heard he‘s only 16! That shit is def, they say, but there’s a rumor that Roxanne is gonna do her own record. L.L. gets forgotten.

The next year, you and your posse scrounge up some Calvin Coolers and go check out Krush Groove. A skinny MC with a baby-blue Le Tigre shirt and matching Kangol cap steals the entire flick in less than five minutes, rocking “I Can‘t Live Without My Radio.” Oh shit, it’s L.L. Cool J!

Months later, you and your crew take in the first concert performance of your young lives, the Krush Groove X-Mas Party. Whodini storm the Madison Square Garden stage on motorcycles, Kurtis Blow shows up in tux tails with ghetto-glam showgirls. Run‘s lung has collapsed, so Run-DMC won’t headline. But from the moment he emerges from the cassette carriage of a huge JVC radio, L.L. steals the show. “Rock the Bells” makes you forget the chain snatchers roving through the stadium, and you lose your mind with the rest of the crowd. (“L.L. Cool J is hard as hell . . .”) The Rick Rubin--produced Radio is your first hip-hop album, and you love it to this day.

L.L. affirmed your manhood way back when you were fumbling trying to figure it out. When his boastful “I‘m Bad” pushed rap’s braggadocio envelope, you were behind him 100 percent. Like the spiritual progeny of Muhammad Ali, MCs are supposed to believe they‘re the baddest, you thought. You know in your heart Cool J’s not the greatest of all time, but, back in the now, you adjust your headphones and listen to him pop shit anyway.

Over an hour later, you‘re still a little conflicted. You knock the cap off a Guinness stout and give it some thought. Sure enough, L.L.’s repeating himself. “Hello” is a sassy phone-sex teaser with Amil manning the line, but wasn‘t “1-900 L.L. Cool J” sorta similar, like, 11 years ago? (And swiping Hancock’s “Watermelon Man,” the concept was much funkier the first time.) “Farmers” is a dedication to Farmers Boulevard, the infamous block from L.L.‘s youth, but so was “Farmers Boulevard (Our Anthem),” from 1990’s Mama Said Knock You Out.

The ale chills your cerebellum, dislodging a memory of something you did like: He dissed the shit out of Canibus, boy! What did he say? “As far as Canibus gomy man is hittin‘ his ex-broadI’m gettin‘ head from his new piecewhile 20 gangbangers applaud”? Ja Rule’s chorus is intrusive, but the ad lib gibes at Canibus on “Back Where I Belong” are worth it, you think. The derivative groove of “Take It Off” reminds you of Q-Tip‘s superior “Vivrant Thing,” and you don’t know what to make of L‘s backhanded homage to dark-skinned sisters on the hidden track, “Hump That.” You wonder what he means by “creeping with the darkest honey I can findget your black ass over here, you out your mind?” You know you’ve never seen a chocolate sister in an L.L. video, and there are 15 years‘ worth.

The baggage of that history makes it difficult for you to really feel G.O.A.T. “Queens Is” causes the same thought to spring to mind, because the minute L.L. passed the mic to a young gun like Prodigy, you were behind it. In the end, a 31-year-old MC -- even L.L. Cool J -- reminds you of your own age, and music, especially hip-hop, is supposed to keep you young, isn’t it?

The next day, driving to work, you find yourself mouthing the words to 12-year-old Lil Bow Wow‘s hit streaming through your car stereo. “Bounce with me, bounce with me . . .”