This Week's Album Releases

LL COOL J | G.O.A.T. - The Greatest Of All Time SUSUMU YOKOTA | Sakura RICKIE LEE JONES | It's Like This WILLIE NELSON | Milk Cow Blues SIZZLA | Bobo Ashanti
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LL COOL J | G.O.A.T. - The Greatest Of All Time (Def Jam)

LL COOL J | G.O.A.T. - The Greatest Of All Time (Def Jam)

The Greatest Of All Time? LL Cool J's certainly not backward about coming forward - but then modesty has always been a commodity in short supply in hip hop, a scene with more antler-locking and ground-pawing per minute than a David Attenborough documentary.

As it happens, he has as solid a claim on the title as any of his peers, having been a fully paid-up rhymer virtually since the genre's inception - his 1984 manifesto "I Need A Beat" was the first-ever release on Def Jam - and having racked up no fewer than six consecutive platinum albums, despite shifting his attentions for much of the last decade to Hollywood. As a movie actor, he has an engaging lightness of touch, though not nearly as much personal magnetism as Will Smith, whose sales and longevity make him LL Cool J's closest rival for the GOAT title. But as a rapper, pure and simple, there's no comparison: unrestricted by the commercial dictates that bind the Fresh Prince firmly to the mainstream, LL here slips with accomplished ease between the streets, the charts and the sheets, equally comfortable with sex raps, social-conscience raps and threat raps. Even in the "Intro" - customarily the most worthless track on a hip hop album - he's rhyming "tenement" with "excellent" and laying out his all-encompassing platform, eager to get on with business.

Judging by his demolition of rival rapper Canibus in "Back Where I Belong", he's not a man to trifle with; it's three years since the last installment in their little feud, but LL lays into his target with cold relish, cruelly exulting in having destroyed Canibus's career (well, somebody had to). With his friends, though, he takes delight in light-hearted banter and fooling - as witness the laconic De Niro impressions of Redman, Method Man and himself on the title-chorus of "Fuhgid-abowdit". But it's the ladeez that most interest him, both in the lascivious carnality of "Imagine That" and "Take It Off", and the more thoughtful reflections of "This Is Us", where he muses on the difficulties of finding the right woman to spend his life with.

Verbally, however, his best work is prompted by the deteriorating social conditions of America's black neighbourhoods, as he frets in "Can't Think" about how "shorties in kindergarten are strapped, ready to blast", summarising the situation with surprising politeness in "Homicide": "I don't mean this in a disrespectful way, but Columbine happens in the ghetto every day." Which makes it all the more frustrating when, a couple of tracks later, the sound of bullets ratcheting into chambers is used to punctuate another neighbourhood battle-cry rap. Isn't he concerned about sending out conflicting signals? Is anybody, in hip hop?

SUSUMU YOKOTA | Sakura (Leaf)

Better known for his more mainstream, techno recordings, Susumu Yokota has over the past year or two developed a nice line in trance/ambient tonal pieces, most winningly on last year's lovely Magic Thread album. Sakura is in effect an extension of the same style, featuring exercises in audio balm such as the opening track, "Saku", an aural sunrise picked out in Eno-esque keyboard tints against an ambient backdrop pregnant with cavernous reverb, a presence in itself. Unfolding unhurriedly from echoing loops of harp or piano, Yokota's designs are minimal without being minimalist, even when built from what appears to be a loop of Steve Reich's Music for 18 Musicians, as on "Gekkoh"; the effect is soothing, but not as hypnotic as one might imagine. "Naminote" is the most active piece here, but barely so, its looped jazz piano figure glistening with expectant vibraphone tones before a discreet drum track enters, effecting subtle transformation through a slightly accented offbeat. "Uchu Tanjyo" is more typical, in the way it blends gently shuffling percussion, ripples of water, heavily reverbed smudges of keyboard tones and a few mumbled (Japanese) phrases into something that hovers on the edge of formality without slipping into the demonstrative. Cool, calm and collected, Sakura is the most well-chilled album of the year.

RICKIE LEE JONES | It's Like This (Artemis/Epic)

Despite an interesting track selection that suggests it's her equivalent of Bowie's Pin-Ups, Rickie Lee Jones's It's Like This ends up as a relatively straight jazz vocal album, its cover versions ultimately lacking the depth of character of her own material on albums such as The Magazine and 1997's inventive Ghostyhead. It starts intriguingly, with a version of Steely Dan's "Show Biz Kids" that lopes along engagingly on little more than double bass and triangle, followed by a faultless run through Marvin Gaye's "Trouble Man" - a song perfectly suited to her bohemian cool. But it soon dips sharply into perfunctory tilts at standards such as "The Street Where You Live", "Someone To Watch Over Me" and "Cycles", the wistful melancholy of the Sinatra staple teased out with acoustic guitar and gentle string tints. Covers of "For No One" and Traffic's "Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys" add a little variety, but the best thing here is an "Up A Lazy River" which finds guests Taj Mahal, Ben Folds and Dan Hicks in a suitably relaxed, Leon Redbone kind of mood, their Mills Brothers-style unison backing vocals boasting just the right degree of disinterested swagger. "That was mighty good," says Rickie as the song concludes. "Sure was," growls Taj in agreement. They're not wrong, either.

WILLIE NELSON | Milk Cow Blues (Mercury)

For an old geezer, Willie Nelson keeps up a cracking pace on the workload treadmill. It was only six weeks ago that his instrumental album Night and Day was released, and here he is touting another CD, this one featuring a collection of blues numbers done in collaboration with guests such as Dr John and BB King. What next? Willie's opera album in November, to be followed in January by his New Year's hip hop special? And what was wrong with plain old country music, anyway? Milk Cow Blues is pleasant enough fare, but it's hardly what you'd call an essential purchase - Dr John's duet on Charles Brown's "Black Night" is a smooth enough pairing of artists and material, and Jimmie Vaughan's spiky guitar punctuation over the railroad-shuffle rhythm of "Kansas City" works well enough, but the overall mood is relaxed to the point of torpor, a lazy exercise in chumming-down with little to recommend it. The pickings are slim indeed here - the distance between Willie's enervated vocal and BB's more impassioned delivery offers marginal interest in a perfunctory cover of the latter's "The Thrill Is Gone". Susan Tedeschi brings an interesting, deeper-blue tone than usual to "Crazy", but one's left wondering whether Willie shouldn't slow down and take a little more trouble next time round.

SIZZLA | Bobo Ashanti (Greensleeves)

Miguel "Sizzla" Collins is not only the most prolific Jamaican artist of recent times, but also the one most likely to revive the kind of Rastafarian roots sensibility that produced the island's most enduring music. But Sizzla has come of age through the dancehall years, which have affected his delivery, just as the era's slackness and paltry materialism have given him something against which to rail. His righteous admonitions are thus of a somewhat sterner cast than the more persuasively melodious preaching of a Seventies roots stars such as Bob Marley, a situation most noticeable when he attempts a milder ballad form like "This Day". Bobo Ashanti follows the form of recent predecessors, with a mixture of simple but stirring anthems ("Strength & Hope", "Do Good"), rasta advice ("Grow U Locks", "Children Beware") and plain old wishful thinking (the clearly inaccurate "Wicked Naw Go Prosper"). Philip "Fatis" Burrel's skeletal dancehall grooves again provide a cunning link between Sizzla's rural sensibility and his more urban-oriented congregation. "Courage" is particularly impressive, Sizzla acknowledging the difficulties facing the righteous ("Such a long road, such mighty tasks"), but recommending "don't lose your courage, soon right shall flourish". If only...

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