Cool Like That

After 15 years in the rap game, LL Cool J knew he'd have to keep it real in a hip-hop market overrun with new faces. So he holed up in his grandmother's basement in Queens, N.Y., just like he used to do when he was a fresh-faced kid in a Kangol hat, and began writing the slickest, most arrogant raps he could think of. The result, a CD called "G.O.A.T. Featuring James T. Smith," is LL's best work on the mike in years. "I had to move back to New York to write this album because I'd been in California too long,'' says Smith. "I was doing the Hollywood thing so much that it affected my sound and the stuff I was saying.''

That Hollywood thing has been Smith's successful run in TV and movies ("Any Given Sunday," "Deep Blue Sea"), the area where he's put most of his focus of late. But acting was never supposed to eclipse what made Smith a household name in the first place. "Music keeps me honest and connected to the streets. Hollywood can make you forget that it's not about a fantasy world.''

Apparently not. On his new CD Smith brings the realities of the street front and center with powerful songs like "Homicide": "I don't mean this in a disrespectful way/But Columbine happens in the ghetto every day/When the s--t goes down, y'all ain't got nothing to say.'' But, as on most of his albums, the rapper fuses hard-core lingo and romance in a way that only he can. Hey, even a guy who's keeping it real can let his guard down sometimes.