When L.L. Cool J raps, you listen; it's that simple. On 14 Shots to the Dome, the cocky, preening magnetism that made him a star nearly a decade ago remains, but his voice is deeper and lived-in, and with more shadings. When he's angry, he bites down on phrases like a weathered Marine drill sergeant; talking dirty, he rhymes ''cornea'' and ''hornier'' with the ease of an old pro and then, in his best homeboy-with-a-heart-of-gold shrug, demands a hug afterward. As he raps a simple phrase like ''I do a little somethin','' you can see the syllables rolling around in his mouth. Like Axl Rose, Kurt Cobain, and occasionally Wynonna Judd, L.L. has an almost effortless vocal presence, and he knows it.
That voice goes a long way toward making 14 Shots to the Dome more of a success than it theoretically should. L.L. and his Kangol hat came blasting out of beatboxes nearly 10 years ago, and his studly image and charisma made him a star. Since then, he has ridden a show-biz roller coaster: platinum albums and gold singles (including the first rap ballad, 1987's ''I Need Love''), followed by a backlash to his apolitical image and, finally, a triumphant and rare rap resurgence with a burning stare of an album, 1990's Mama Said Knock You Out. Yet in the nearly three years since he reestablished himself, rap has kept moving: It has grown grittier, more explicit, and even more political, and younger hip-hoppers are finding new inspiration in everything from metallic riffs to laid-back psychedelia and slacker jazz.
L.L., a veteran at age 25, will have none of it. On 14 Shots to the Dome, his remains a world of boasts and brags (he is still ''the baddest rapper ever born''), samples lifted from old James Brown records, and songs dedicated ''to all the ladies in the house.'' At a time when the likes of Ice Cube and Ice-T directly confront the powers that be, such a reliance on the past should make him sound hopelessly anachronistic. (The title alone is a halfhearted attempt to plug into the gangsta school; in truth, it merely refers to the number of songs on the album.) But L.L. uses old-school values to his advantage. 14 Shots to the Dome isn't a major work, but it's a powerful, self-assured one. The album is about taking pleasure in rap basics; it treats them with the same pride and dignity an elder bluesman would give four-bar chord changes and done-me-wrong lyrics.
Working within those parameters, L.L. and his five coproducers have fashioned a record that constantly tugs at your ear. Whether it's the swaying sample of King Floyd's 1971 hit ''Groove Me'' that propels ''A Little Somethin','' the female pillow-talk chorus woven throughout ''Stand By Your Man'' (shades of Mama's ''Around the Way Girl''), or trendy touches of dancehall, the music never stays still. Tracks like ''Buckin' Em Down'' and the self-referential career synopsis ''Funkadelic Relic'' are packed tighter than a pound of headcheese. And yet, thanks to producers like the rock-steady and inventive Marley Marl, they still have a lightness and deftness that often evades studio comers like Dr. Dre.
Like many of his peers from the early days of rap, L.L. isn't much of a protest singer; he mentions cops, crack babies, and ''political setbacks,'' yet he offers no solutions other than, as he puts it, ''all we got left is the beat.'' (In that regard, it will be fascinating to see how such a self-involved, nonpolitical work fares in the post-Rodney King hip-hop scene.) He sounds more at home on the sly, loping ''Pink Cookies in a Plastic Bag Getting Crushed by Buildings,'' where he seduces a woman with playful puns on the names of fellow rappers ''Rub you down with warm Ice-Tea/Make you feel Brand Nubian instantly.''
Still, unlike such founding fathers as Kurtis Blow and Grandmaster Flash and maybe Run-D.M.C. next L.L. truly is a survivor, one of rap's enduring artists. To ram that point home, he ends the album with its biggest risk. The subject of ''Crossroads'' is nothing less than the apocalypse, and he and producer Bobby ''Bobcat'' Ervin go all out, placing an 18-piece orchestra atop drumbeats and girl-group backup singers who coo lines like ''People living in a shack.../Little kids selling crack...!''
It could easily have been a pretentious mess, but the strings coil around him like an approaching nuclear hurricane, and L.L.'s delivery (''We gotta rise above the war/To see what no man has seen before!'') is so galvanizing that it's easy to imagine the spit leaping from his mouth and onto the studio walls. ''Crossroads'' hints at his creative future as strongly as the rest of 14 Shots to the Dome makes you believe in the power of roots rap. A