LL Cool J rose to fame through a series of firsts. In his 1984 debut single “I Need a Beat,” the scrappy and still-teenaged MC laid his braggadocio down to a precise, hard-hitting backbeat — production that the LP’s label described as “Reduced by Rick Rubin.” LL’s debut Radio became one of hip hop’s first commercially successful albums. “I Need Love” was the first rap song to be a #1 R&B hit. LL paved the way for Eminem and Drake by becoming one of the first rappers to achieve pop stardom. Yes, he was also accused of selling out.
But the more the mainstream paid attention to rap, the bigger the genre grew. So, for most of his 13-album deal with Def Jam, LL Cool J chased after rap’s most notable sounds and names, from West Coast-style rap reporting (14 Shots To The Dome) to Timbaland (The DEFinition). For 14th album Authentic (out today, April 30), LL has enlisted funk forefathers (Bootsy Collins), ’90s R&B stars (Seal) and Snoop Dogg, upon his own Reincarnation. Based on the tracklist, Authentic appears to be another first — that is, his first decisively retro affair.
At times, Authentic feels like an inspired revival of older sounds. “Not Leaving You Tonight” is a neon-tinted ode to his Queens neighborhood with a soaring chorus from soul-pop outfit Fitz & The Tantrums. “Whaddup” features Rage Against The Machine‘s Tom Morello and Public Enemy‘s Chuck D alongside mashup maven Z-Trip and Travis Barker; its tribute to Rubin’s earlier, fierce rap-meets-rock production is so spot-on, Drake fans aren’t likely to understand its appeal. Unfortunately, some of Authentic‘s featured artists — and I’m including LL here — are also presented in the most predictable and banal way.
“Give Me Love” plants poor Seal in a ’90s boy band affair, complete with LL saying, “I swear.” Radio personality Fatman Scoop screams on “We Came To Party” more than Lil Jon ever did on any club banger. Total hype overkill. And as LL Cool J, rap pioneer, continues to chase after sounds, he leaps into familiar modes. Here he shifts from lust (on the cringe-worthy “Between These Sheetz”) to love (the equally awful “Live For You,” featuring “Accidental Racist” collaborator Brad Paisley), and he morphs from the type of guy who craves “Paradise” with Amerie to the bully who will knock you out. At its worst, Authentic sounds downright generic.
In 1990, after being accused of blatantly chasing after pop success, LL released Mama Said Knock You Out — to many, a return to rap form, reminiscent of Radio and its “Reduced by Rick Rubin” form. A year later however, LL was back to wanting more. “For Keith Richards to be  and up there playing for a stadium — that’s a career. What I’m doing now is still real small,” LL said to, coincidentally, Rolling Stone. “But I’m going to get there. I’m going to be 40-something and doing this, and it’s going to be amazing.”
LL, now 45, seizes every opportunity to break down his accomplishments. (Authentic‘s last track? “We’re The Greatest.” And “We Came To Party”? He’s hosting the Grammys.) However, like other albums of his, Authentic underscores how the MC has clearly forgotten what Radio emphasized to rap’s next generation. With his boasts set to just a killer back beat, LL showed way back when that hip-hop never required much to make an impact.
Pops Like: A whirlwind tour through mainstream rap and R&B of the past 30 years.
Best Song That Wasn’t the Single: “Not Leaving You Tonight” not only sounds modern, but it features LL’s best rhymes of the entire album.
Idolator Score: 2.5/5
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