Conventional logic would suggest LL Cool J doesn’t have anything to prove as a rapper. He’s a living hip-hop legend who is literally part of history books as one of the earliest stars on Def Jam Records, when the label was just getting off the ground in the 1980s. Some three decades later, in addition to a formidable discography, the man born James Todd Smith has built up a considerable filmography. Despite the film credits, the Grammy appearances, and the starring role on NCIS: LA TV drama, LL Cool J is still a rapper at the core and, for some odd reason, he felt the need to remind everyone of that fact through his latest album, Authentic.
From the first glance at the 13-song tracklist, one thing is clear: LL has quite the rolodex, and he doesn’t mind using it. In fact, all but one song on Authentic feature someone, from Fitz and the Tantrums to Seal, Snoop Dogg and even country star Brad Paisley. The collaborative nature of the project usually means the artist is relying on others’ star status, but in LL’s case, the intent was probably to showcase his rapping ability – he still has plenty of that, even if it sounds a little outdated – next to artists he likes and vice versa. The collaborations make for an interesting listen, to say the least, and they work for the most part. LL excels when he sticks to the R&B/rap formula that he helped define, so songs such as the Seal-assisted “Give Me Love” can find their way to adult contemporary radio stations and to the ears of the 40-somethings that grew up with LL Cool J. On the other hand, “We Came To Party” is a piss-poor attempt at a 2013 club song. Although Fatman Scoop and Snoop Dogg are featured, LL is better off leaving this kind of music to a younger rapper like, say, Big Sean.
One of the redeeming qualities about Authentic is the high-energy beat selection, and LL hits it out of the park with “Whaddup,” a song that will resonate with old school heads and educate the youth that were not yet born when LL Cool J’s first album came out. While Travis Barker’s live drumming captivates on “Whaddup,” Chuck D’s lines grab the listener by the collar. But, just as quickly, the next track, “Between The Sheetz,” is a throwaway mushy R&B-rap song featuring singer Mickey Shiloh. The most head-scratching cut is the Monica-featuring “Closer,” yet another formulaic R&B-rap collaboration on which LL chastises younger rappers for wearing skinny jeans, among other things. The smooth Monica chorus simply doesn’t fit. The song is so awful it actually makes the Brad Paisley-assisted “Live For You” tolerable.
With Authentic, LL Cool J delivers an uneven project that has more misses than hits. The few hits that can be found here are a homage to the LL of three decades ago. If LL set out to make a statement with Authentic, it’s hard to figure out what that statement was. The album doesn’t dilute LL Cool J’s career, but it doesn’t add anything to it either.