Happy 30th Anniversary to LL Cool J’s third studio album Walking With A Panther, originally released June 9, 1989.
The definitive hip-hop comeback album is LL Cool J’s Mama Said Knock You Out (1990). It was seen as a triumphant return to form for the young legend James Todd Smith, who had become hip-hop’s golden child with his first two albums, but then, as is the commonly accepted story, dug his own grave with his third album Walking With A Panther, which hit shelves 30 years ago.
But the truth is that Walking With A Panther isn’t really a bad album. In fact, it’s pretty damn good. It’s an album that has its faults, but much of it displays what made LL Cool J a legend in the making, and when it plays to his strengths as an emcee, it features work that’s as brilliant as anything that he ever recorded.
At the time of its release, Walking With A Panther was decried for its excess. The vinyl version runs 67 minutes, which was essentially a double album. The CD version was even longer, clocking in at almost 77 minutes. And the cassette version, which I owned, topped 84 minutes, which was pretty much unheard of at the time for a hip-hop release.
Besides its sheer length, Walking With A Panther was criticized for what critics believed was rampant materialism and braggadocio overload. Groups like Public Enemy and Boogie Down Productions were on the rise, so the growing “enlightened” crowd didn’t immediately embrace a rapper who proudly proclaimed that “I’m so bad, I can suck my own dick” that seriously.
Walking With A Panther didn’t deserve all the flak it received when it was first released, but its glaring flaws shouldn’t be ignored. It is a confounding album. So much of it goes so right, and you can see that there are the makings of a great album contained within. However, there are components that are just bafflingly awful. Walking With A Panther is an ambitious undertaking, and LL takes a lot of chances that most superstars wouldn’t take.
LL and Dwayne Simon handle the majority of the album’s production. Simon was a member of the LA Posse, the production crew who helped put together LL’s second LP Bigger and Deffer (1987). Due to complications with Def Jam, The LA Posse as a whole was unable to produce Walking With A Panther, and Simon was the only one who remained.
LL and Simon’s production is best when they create more rugged, higher tempo fare. The album-opening “Droppin’ ’Em” is a prime example, as LL charges out the gate, proclaiming to be “like The Hulk with more bulk, I'm powerful!” as he attacks the unorthodox drum track. “Why Do Think They Call It Dope?” is another fast-paced lyric-fest, as LL deploys tongue-twisting rhymes like, “Don’t sleep I’m too sweet to repeat a beat / A lyric or rhyme I wouldn't waste your time / With weak words, that's for nerds, you never heard a rhyme / So you deserve a line rougher than rough, enough is enough.” LL’s DJ Cut Creator remains an integral part of what makes the album enjoyable, as he contributes furious scratches.
It’s hard to believe anyone ever could believe LL fell off with Walking With A Panther after hearing a track like “Nitro.” LL raps like a man possessed, stringing together phrases and bars at a break neck pace like it was second nature, stating, “I write to fight, don't bite, to reach heights / The mic makes right, give me the spotlight / So I can prove the pen is mightier than the sword / LL hard as hell, the lyrical lord.” Behind the boards, the Bomb Squad mix Parliament’s “Flashlight” and the “Funky Drummer” break with what sounds like a sample of Marvin Gaye’s “T Plays it Cool.” The infamous production crew also produce another of the album’s more raucous entries, “It Gets No Rougher.”
LL may have been encouraged to get a little unorthodox after the success of “Going Back To Cali,” which first appeared about a year and a half earlier on the Less Than Zero soundtrack, and is also included on Walking With A Panther. Produced by Rick Rubin, the song is comparatively surreal in its execution, an early riff on “alternative” hip-hop. The backing beat for the track sounds almost electro, with its tweaks and pops, but Rubin adds a full horn section, along with a signature closing sax solo. On the mic, LL uses an experimental, conversational flow, at times barely rhyming during his verses. Though LL later said he initially disliked the song, it was a huge hit. The single went platinum, showing that LL could be comparatively weird and his audience would still respond.
LL again tried something non-traditional with Walking With A Panther’s first real single, “I’m That Type Of Guy,” but to much less success, artistic and otherwise. Again, the song sounded different than just about everything he’d released up to that point. Using an almost whispering delivery, he details his uncanny ability to steal girls away from complacent schlubs. The song never quite clicks, and his “clever” lines often fall flat. It’s an interesting failure, but a failure nonetheless.
“Big Ole’ Butt” would have been a much better choice for a lead single. The fun, bouncy tale of LL’s further forays into infidelity has certainly endured in its popularity over the last three decades. The catchy track is one of LL’s best efforts in seeking broader appeal while still maintaining his edge. Though it must be said that his decision to enthusiastically head to a local high school at 3 p.m. sharp to seek out 17-year-old conquests is creepy in retrospect.
LL often proves quite successful at taking a less aggressive approach. “Smokin’, Dopin’” is about as understated as LL gets, kicking smooth rhymes over a simple bassline and solid drum break. “1-900 LL Cool J” features LL rhyming slick over the guitar breakdown to Herbie Hancock’s “Watermelon Man,” oozing confidence as he raps, “Cool out, grab a seat and listen… / ’Cause Imma start dismissing / Sucker emcee’s who’s out there fronting? / Talking all that yang? Yo, you smoking something.”
“Clap Your Hands” feels like a live in-the-studio jam with LL and his crew, with the “Prince of the Rap Court” kicking rhymes over a live guitar riff played by decorated studio musician Billy Spaceman Patterson. Before boasting that, “I eat my steak fast, I drink my brew slow,” he makes numerous allusions to what he’d later reveal in his autobiography was an addiction to pornography. These hints include saying the J in his name stands for “Jeremy” (as in Ron Jeremy) and a reference to Seka a.k.a. “The Platinum Princess of Porn.”
LL does make an effort to be conscious throughout the album. For example, songs like “Fast Peg” show the dark side of living the fast life. The brief song tells the story of Peg, a fly girl with a “DC face and stewardess legs” who’s “face belongs on a dollar bill.” A mobster’s mol, she enjoys the spoils of her boyfriend’s ill-gotten gains, until she becomes the victim of a rival crew seeking retribution. The sinister “Crime Stories,” which was only available on the cassette version of the album, features LL laying out different scenarios with wannabe felons. Each quickly learn that despite their best laid plans and feelings of invincibility, crime definitely does not pay.
Other attempts at social commentary aren’t as successful. “Change Your Ways,” LL’s plea to entertainers, criminals, and party people to begin contributing to charity, is overly clunky and nonsensical. It’s also the worst non-love song on the album.
Songs like “Change Your Ways” may be cheesy, but the album’s trio of love songs are as bad as advertised. It’s really hard to overstate their unadulterated awfulness. After the runaway success of “I Need Love,” it was expected that LL would attempt to duplicate its success on subsequent releases. The key difference was “I Need Love” was at its core light-hearted. However, all three ballads on Walking are just pure treacle and mind-numbingly self-serious. For my money “One Shot at Love” (the album’s second single) and “Two Different Worlds” are two of the absolute worst songs of hip-hop’s golden era. I struggle to think of other songs that are as ass-awful. It makes things worse that the ways these songs are spaced throughout the album often kills any momentum it builds, especially in its later portions.
Though I initially wasn’t feeling it, I have come to thoroughly enjoy “Def Jam in the Motherland.” I can now fully appreciate LL flowing over the keyboard breakdown from MFSB’s “Love is the Message.” He makes rhyming sound so effortless as he states, “I burn buildings, eat emcees / Smack DJs and tell conceited girls please / They try to ban hard, but I’m a vanguard / And they could never get a piece of the man Todd.”
The cassette version of the album ends with “Jack the Ripper,” at the time the latest chapter in the continuing battle between LL and rapper Kool Moe Dee. This one is in response to Moe Dee’s “How Ya Like Me Now,” from the album of the same name. Of the many, many disses and responses involved in this beef, “Jack the Ripper” is the best. It’s the pinnacle of the two emcees’ battle for supremacy, and one of the top two or three dis tracks of all time.
Like the song’s namesake, LL eviscerates Moe Dee over the space of five verses and nearly five minutes. Rick Rubin provides a beat that’s equally as fierce as LL’s rap, sampling “Ashley’s Roachclip” by the Soul Searchers and bolstering the pounding drums. Between repeated taunts of “How ya like me now?” LL blasts his “old school sucker punk” opponent for not being as successful or as dope on the mic as he is. Meanwhile, LL’s proclamations that he’s “Hard like penitentiary steel / Breaking necks while I flex my sex appeal” and that he’s “aiming to please while I’m killing emcees / I’m gonna keep on hitting you with rough LPs” served as his mission statement for all the good parts of his career.
As alluded to earlier, LL’s apparent “nadir” barely lasted a year, as the “Jingling Baby” remix by Marley Marl was a smash-hit. Marley would go on to produce the entirety of Mama Said Knock You Out, which became one of the most-beloved entries in LL’s catalogue, and sent him back on the path to cross media superstardom. Simon would continue to make dope music as well. As a member of The W.I.S.E. Guyz, Simon would help create the underappreciated eF yoU eN Kay E. (1989)
It’s somewhat weird that the negative association with Walking With A Panther still lingers, since LL went on to release much worse albums during the prime of his career. Truthfully, these days Walking With A Panther has a lot in common with the overly long albums released by commercially successful rappers from the early ’00s until now. However, I’ll state with confidence that Walking With A Panther is better than every one of the albums released by rappers like Drake or DMX.
Despite any issues, Walking With A Panther is still one of the more interesting hip-hop albums released during hip-hop’s peak, and its successes still endure the test of time. And while LL has continued to release albums over the greater part of the three decades since, very few of them have been as fascinating or even as good as Walking With A Panther.