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LL COOL J “Walking With a Panther.” Def Jam/Columbia ** 1/2: Albums are rated on a scale of one (poor) to five ( a classic) stars.

Cool J established himself as the meanest-talking rapper around with his early hits “You’ll Rock” and “Rock the Bells,” devouring the competition with ruthless insults and non-stop bragging thrown wildly over hard hip-hop dance beats. So a lot of fans were surprised when he released the rap ballad “I Need Love,” a 1987 hit that showed a softer side of LL.

On “Walking With a Panther,” Cool J is again marching to his own bad beat, mixing his trademark hard-edged tirades with several reprises of the rap ballad format. “I’m That Type of Guy,” the first single, is a smoothly grooving boast that finds the “ladies lover” in firm control of the females. “Why Do You Think They Call It Dope” is a rough and rugged up-tempo jam whose rage and rhythm are rivaled only by radical rhymers Public Enemy. “Jingling Baby” is a wild and frantic dance jam laced with manic fast-paced rhyming.

The album’s three love songs come off sounding lame at best, even embarrassing, and “Clap Your Hands” includes some inexcusably adolescent sexual references. But with the exception of these minor indiscretions, the album re-establishes Cool J as rap’s hardest one-man band.

Boasting has always been LL Cool J’s shtick, but here he sinks under the weight of his own ego. He’s barely altered the style he’s relied on for years, and the formula shows signs of strain. The New York hip-hop scene is moving ahead rapidly, adding new and broader motifs of social consciousness and responsibility. That’s a development that leaves “Walking With a Panther” sounding a little out of step with the times.

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