October 02, 2000 12:00 PM

Greatest of All Time Featuring James T. Smith

LL Cool J (Def Jam)

On his latest CD, LL (born James Todd Smith) takes a self-aggrandizing cue from Muhammad Ali and declares he is the greatest rapper of all time. Critics might argue with his boast, but there’s no denying that the 32-year-old ranks as one of hip-hop’s finest. A rap star since he was 16, he is also an accomplished actor (Deep Blue Sea).

Now, with this album, LL Cool J (translation: Ladies Love Cool James) shows why he has been a fixture in the pop-music firmament. He delivers his smart and sexy lyrics and weathers hip-hop’s many stylistic sea changes with a veteran’s confidence. That confidence, and his effortless way with rhymes, is evident on much of this CD, which is not as defining as his 1990 triumph Mama Said Knock You Out yet must rank among LL’s best. One of rap’s first sex symbols, LL loads up the seduction and swagger on tracks like “Imagine That,” which gleefully details a series of amorous encounters.

It is on those silky, naughty tracks that LL shines. He falters when he tries to play the street thug. Ripping into those who dare question his abilities, LL is scathing. But despite his nimble put-downs, he is, as the old song says, a lover, not a fighter.

Bottom Line: An old hand is deft, and def, as ever

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