L.L. Cool J
Def Jam

If you haven't heard, James Todd Smith -- better known to the world as L.L. Cool J -- is a changed man now. This is the same guy who, ten years ago, would rip open his jogging jacket in a heartbeat to reveal his muscled chest to all the ladies. Now he has a wife and three kids, not to mention an autobiography, I Make My Own Rules, in which Smith reveals his dark and dirty secrets, among them his passion for porn and groupie booty.

Today, though, with the power of God on his side, Smith has apparently grown into a responsible adult. But while that may be the case for J.T. Smith, from the sound of Phenomenon, L.L. Cool J is still a cocksure, coochie-coveting member of rap royalty. On his fifth release, L.L. rambles with a rambunctious vigor that's reminiscent of his '80s glory days, even if now he's only out to tease. The obligatory Puff Daddyproduced title track finds him offering up thrusting, throbbing signs of hope to any girls out there still longing to lie by his side, its powerful beat (as in everything Puff Daddy produces) setting the tone. Another Puff Daddy track, "Hot, Hot, Hot," has the Daddy beating a Tom Tom Club sample to death behind L.L.'s pro-female babble, which only proves that the producer's Midas touch just might be wearing supermodel-thin.

Thankfully, much of Phenomenon doesn't fall victim to Puff-ication. In fact, it's producers Poke and Tone -- a.k.a. the Trackmasters -- who almost steal the rug out from under L.L.'s feet. The Trackmasters have recently produced notable songs for Mariah Carey, Mary J. Blige and Will Smith, and here they parlay their expertise into three superb tracks, exhibiting an unchecked enthusiasm for beats and samples that rivals that shown by Hank and Eric Shocklee (the Bomb Squad) in their work with Public Enemy and Ice Cube. On "Candy," the Trackmasters balance out the freaknik ballast of the title track with a daydreamy love song; "Another Dollar" has the duo matching L.L.'s sexed-up swagger groove for groove; and on the big-message number "Father," George Michael's "Father Figure" is put to moving use as L.L. discloses his longtime desire for a paternal icon. Phenomenon may indeed prove to be L.L. Cool J's second coming, but if so, it's because the wizardry of a pair of behind-the-scenes geniuses has paved his way. (***)

-- Craig D. Lindsey

Delbert McClinton
One of the Fortunate Few
Rising Tide

It's been four very long years since Delbert McClinton released anything new. Sure, he's been touring almost constantly, putting in some 200 dates a year. And he's also appeared on a compilation or two, not to mention that his 1995 duet with Tanya Tucker, "Tell Me About It," earned a Grammy nomination. Still, it's always a kick when McClinton releases a new batch of his brand of Texas country soul.

That said, there's really nothing groundbreaking on One of the Fortunate Few. McClinton adds no new ingredients to his reliable formula. From the Southern-fried funk of "Old Weakness" to the back-porch acoustic guitar and harmonica setting of "Better Off with the Blues," it's just ten solid tracks of gritty blues and roadhouse rock -- Delbert style, of course.

One thing that does make One of the Fortunate Few distinctive, however, is its lineup of stellar musical guests. B.B. King adds his unmistakable guitar work to the delightfully upbeat "Leap of Faith," and Lyle Lovett and John Prine chime in on the tongue-in-cheek boogie, "Too Much Stuff." Elsewhere, there are appearances by Vince Gill, Patty Loveless, Lee Roy Parnell, Mavis Staples and Pam Tillis. Those cameos, along with the sturdy assistance of Gary Nicholson, McClinton's longtime collaborator and guitarist in his road band, help make One McClinton's strongest set ever, and one that is sure to delight his legion of fans. All they'll ask of Delbert, no doubt, is that he not stay away from the studio so long next time. (***)

-- Jim Caligiuri

Various Artists
One -- Texas Electronica

If One -- Texas Electronica is any proof, forgiveness will continue to be in short supply for anyone who persists in judging this state purely on the merits of people wearing cowboy hats who make music for other people wearing cowboy hats. According to this impressive new compilation of mostly Austin and Houston techno bands, underground electronica is alive and well in these parts.

One features the (in)famous as well as the unknown, running the gamut from dance to ambient while providing an effective, multitextured soundtrack to life as we know it in the waning years of the 20th century. Locals featured on One include Chris Anderson and Andrei Morant, a.k.a. the Matrix Crew, arguably the most successful rave promoters in Houston. Morant's "Carried" is eight minutes of pure beat, a minimalist exercise in dance music that builds steadily to a quiet climax. Among other highlights, D-Day Project's "Funk" is both complex and catchy, cycling from thick, pounding bass to ephemeral "strings" and tiny percussive noises. Quaquaversal's ".63 c12.05.95 t05:26" rides a sinister groove for, yes, five minutes, 26 seconds, while the group's spacy ".19 c10.17.95 t04:52," which moves from the velvet reaches of space to the dreamless sleep of an icy cryogenic pod, could be a soundtrack for Alien XII.