Exit 13, LL Cool J’s 2008 album that signaled the end of LL’s long, storied career at Def Jam, was not a well-planned album by any stretch of the imagination (even the title loses its bite once you realize it’s actually his 12th album) but it was a fine way to end a career. LL’s performance on the microphone proved he’d long since lost what made the Ladies Love Cool James. The scattered production, mostly from mismatches and no-names, proved the only concept behind the album was as simple as a product on a shelf. And with featured contributions from someone comfortable being referred to as “Jiz” and none other than Bon Jovi’s own Richie Sambora, it was clear LL Cool J was just waiting around for people to come in the studio and help him fill time on his contractual obligation.
Enter Authentic, the album no one but NCIS: Los Angeles fans were really asking for. It opens with “Bath Salt”, a hardcore song that’s somewhat reminiscent of the mid-80s sound of groups like Mantronix, but also feels like an amateur Soundcloud production injected with money. The song attempts to marry the sort of grown, business-man rap that briefly sunk Jay-Z’s momentum on 2006’s Kingdom Come, and it’s done without any of the tact that was present on that album. Point blank, the song is just a terrible reintroduction to LL Cool J.
If “Bath Salt” instilled any fears that LL might be trying to recapture his Radio glory and coming up far short of it, just take a quick look at the track list and take solace in the fact LL Cool J is clearly executing his own vision of Big Boi’s Vicious Lies & Dangerous Rumors project. Unfortunately, there’s no vision to it: Charlie Wilson, Bootsy Collins and Earth, Wind & Fire make sense together. Travis Barker, Tom Morello and Z-Trip make sense together. But where do Chuck D, Eddie Van Halen, Fitz & The Tantrums, Seal or Brad Paisley fit in?
“Not Leaving You Tonight”, the Fitz & Eddie collaboration, is a perfect example of what a rapper who’s short on ideas and long on money should do: buy a Fitz & The Tantrums song, remove the verses and replace them with vaguely interesting raps plus an Eddie Van Halen guitar solo because…because? “Just because” often feels like the operative word here, the way a seven year old dismisses your scolding over a bad decision. It’s a wonder that “Accidental Racist”, Twitter’s favorite accidental disaster of 2013, didn’t make the cut here.
Authentic just has no desire to even pretend it has a vision outside of LL Cool J rapping and his friends stopping by to help fill time. Maybe that’s why the best surprise on the disc is “We Came to Party”, produced by LL Cool J and featuring Fatman Scoop bellowing the hook like it was 2002 while Snoop Dogg goofs around. By the time the song gets to its extended bridge of “destruction in the club” over horns that Soulja Boy may have given James on loan the honeymoon is pretty much over, but at least it shows that if LL were left entirely to his own devices he could turn out a decent regional Youtube jam.
Other ‘highlights’ are on here, but Authentic is just not an album anyone should be bothering with. The production, handled mostly by the Trackmasters (of late-90s fame), is just so consistently out of touch with what’s going on in LL’s native boom bap or hip-hop’s current mainstream sounds as to make Authentic feel timeless mainly because albums so rarely sound this flat and uninspired, giving it little to be compared to. As consistent as the sunrise those random features that don’t make any sense on paper end up being the focal point of the song, whether it’s Seal’s surprisingly croaking vocal or Eddie’s still-powerful if clichéd finger play. LL Cool J used to be one of if not the greatest rappers in the world, but that was almost 20 years ago, or more like 25 if you want to get serious.
At this point, though, he’s not much different than Kobe Bryant or Shaquille O’Neal trying to make a rap album. It’s hard not to notice LL Cool J feels like he’s acting his way through a mess of a script. I hate to use this line again, but maybe you Spotify the Earth, Wind & Fire track if you’re in LL’s age bracket. Leave the rest for the recycle bin.
// Notes from the Road
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