The seventh album from LL Cool J, Phenomenon, builds on LL’s unexpected late-1990s renaissance, a period that spawned years of radio-dominating pop hits, R&B guest spots, high-profile soundtrack appearances, and unrelenting mixtape fire. His double-platinum smash Mr. Smith had seamlessly united hip-hop, R&B, and pop, thanks to a handful of Bad Boy Records cohorts—and this follow-up would be executive produced by CEO Sean “Puffy” Combs himself. The collaboration couldn’t have been better timed: Phenomenon arrived in 1997, at the height of the shiny suit era, and when all eyes (and ears) were trained on Puffy, thanks to albums like Notorious B.I.G.’s Life After Death, Ma$e’s Harlem World, and his own solo debut. As a result, the majority of Phenomenon was handled by the two biggest production teams of the Jiggy Era: Combs’ in-house production team The Hitmen and his frequent collaborators Trackmasters. Yes, the label says Def Jam—but the sound is pure Bad Boy. Much of Phenomenon gets its lush, opulent, hedonistic vibe straight from the disco floors and skating rinks of the late 1970s and early 1980s. New Edition’s 1983 hit “Candy Girl” gets interpolated on “Candy,” LL’s ode to teenage love, complete with guest harmonies by the group’s Ralph Tresvant and Ricky Bell. And LeShaun, the lusty lady from “Doin’ It,” returns for a sweat-soaked second round on “Nobody Can Freak You,” a song built on a high-octane Steve Arrington groove. And on “Starsky & Hutch,” LL does a Run-D.M.C.-style back-and-forth routine with Busta Rhymes over Peter Brown’s opulent 1978 disco funker “Dance With Me.” Phenomenon’s penultimate track, “Father,” breaks new artistic ground for LL, who uses his perennially acute storytelling skills to spin a harrowing, autobiographical tale of the abuse he suffered at the hands of his mother’s boyfriend. But the most consequential track on the album would be a group effort: The tight, Erick Sermon-produced funk bomb “4, 3, 2, 1” is a quorum between Uncle L and four of the absolute hottest MC’s in the world circa 1997: Method Man, Redman, DMX, and Canibus. But after the host took offense to a Canibus line, the track turned into a battlefield. LL Cool J goes nuclear on the song’s closer, kickstarting the last great beef war of the 1990s: “In the history of rap, they’ve never seen such prominence,” he seethes, “Your naive confidence gets crushed by my dominance.” Phenomenon proved that, while LL had spent much of the mid-1990s as a champagne-rap heartbreaker, you couldn’t keep Jack the Ripper locked up for long. “LL Cool J,” he closes, “greatest of all time.”

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