CLSmooth.jpgThe comeback trail can be a slippery slope to climb, even for the most revered rap veteran. So when a largely underappreciated lyricist such as CL Smooth attempts a full-fledged return with his first solo effort, American Me, the chances of success are slim. Add to that the fact that former partner Pete Rock’s jazzy production is absent from the disc, and the odds are further stacked. Still, the Mecca Don manages to spit in the face of father time and deliver a long-overdue lyrical onslaught.

Even after a decade of sporadic guest appearances, CL proves that his liquid flow is still intact. Rhyming over the spine-tingling guitar riffs of the Arsonist-produced title track, he confirms, “If there was any doubt before/I could ever return/Watch and learn/This the type of heat that make Pete squirm.” Whether he’s reflecting on his family on “Call on Me” or braggin’ and boastin’ on the ’70s soul-dripping “Gorilla Pimpin’,” the Caramel King continues to deliver quick and densely packed metaphors.

Just as CL hasn’t lost his knack for writing compelling lyrics, he’s also adept at assembling a stable of capable producers to approximate Pete Rock’s sound. The Mike Loe–helmed “I Can’t Help It” features royal horns and a haunting chopped-up vocal sample, while the cool organ chords and wah-wah guitars of “CL Smooth Unplugged” suggest the mellow vibe of a smoky jazz joint.

It’s when CL wanders outside his sonic comfort zone that the storied wordsmith winds up sounding inert. Major culprits being the repetitive heavy metal guitars of “The Impossible” and the forced Caribbean-tailored riddims of “The Stroll.” Even with just a couple of stylistic mistakes, American Me’s main fault is its inability to entice virgin ears. Faithful fans reminiscing over yesteryear will still appreciate the living legend’s sound, but it will most likely miss the masses. Nonetheless, based on “The Outsider,” CL is still happy with his standing, as he professes, “Take notes and listen and love my position.”—BRETT JOHNSON