The veteran rapper attempts to carve an
adult-contemporary niche with his latest album.
Authentic is LL Cool J's 13 th studio album, and his first since leaving Def Jam, the label he essentially co-founded back in the mid-80s. 12 tracks deep (16 on the Target retail exclusive), the pioneering rapper explores new territory again-- this time around, he's asserting that
rappers over 40 (he's 45) can still kick out the jams and have something to say without pandering to teen-culture sensibilities.
"Bath Salt", the LP opener, find's LL declaring his legend bona fides over a club-friendly keyboard riff: "Nah, there's never been one like me/ you're lookin' for a new me as if there might be/ even with a love song, that's unlikely ..." The romantic come-ons in the follow-up, "Not Leaving You Tonight" (abetted by backup vocals from Fitz & the Tantrums and guitar work by Eddie Van Halen ) actually set the tone for most of the album. The R&B-fusion that crept into LL's work as far back as 1987 is the default stylistic standard here, with battle-and-boast raps as the outliers. To LL's credit, most of these efforts work, in large part due to longtime collaborators Poke & Tone and newcomer Jaylien.
Authentic may well feature the most guest spots ever on an LL Cool J album-- and while the combo-platter approach may be de rigueur for contemporary hip-hop albums, LL eschews any at-the-moment upstarts to share space. Instead, he cherry-picks icons from the 70s, 80s, 90s and 2000s to mostly positive results. The aforementioned Van Halen gets his shred on with the LP highlight "We're the Greatest," one of a pair of rap-rock anthems; the other, "Waddup" (with fellow Def Jam alumnus Chuck D ), brings along Blink 182's Travis Barker and Audioslave's Tom Morello . Other pleasant guest spots include funk belters Charlie Wilson and Bootsy Collins, and even Earth, Wind and Fire's horn section gets to hang out. Country crooner Brad Paisley handles the hook for "Live for You"; another ballad, it (perhaps thankfully) doesn't try to re-tread the race-relations theme of their previous duet, "Accidental Racist". Still, the album isn't all gold-- "Waiting on You" (w. Babyface) features LL attempting a speed-rap flow that just doesn't quite gel. He redeems himself on "Remember Me" (produced by Marley Marl), a lament for the deceased that finds the artist sneaking in some rare political jabs: "…for the kids in Newtown and new gun laws/ that would easily pass if that kid was yours … ayo, Congress, whaddup?"
Recognizing that his Generation X fanbase are raising their own families now, LL deemphasizes any outright cursing here, and snippets of past hip-hop gems can be heard (LL, Salt-n-Pepa, Public Enemy), giving a nod to nostalgia that doesn't become overwhelming. The NCIS: Los Angeles TV show may be LL's main bread-and-butter now, but Authentic is a credible argument against canceling his recording career.