Contrary to your knee-jerk reaction to the name LL Cool J, “irrelevant” is actually the wrong word to most accurately describe the recent career arc of the man born James Todd Smith. After all, we’re talking about a 45-year-old rapper pushing 30 active years in the game. A man with 15 studio albums under his belt, the bulk of which were released on the most famous hip-hop record label in the world which he also helped to build. We’re talking about an entertainment personality with enough breadth of appeal to play the co-lead in a weekly network police drama made solely for your parents, and assume hosting duties on this year’s edition of the Grammys. Mama Said Knock You Out was a long time ago, but LL still has a thriving career under the Big Top of American entertainment. Before we completely dismiss the man, let’s recall that corporate check-signers don’t continually approve personas non grata for leading roles when there’s multinational cheddar on the line.
No, “irrelevant” isn’t a suitable adjective for LL Cool J, but “marginalized” certainly is. And, in the snark-infested waters of an increasingly fickle hip-hop literati, marginalization can be a greater liability than irrelevance because it more precisely determines the type of scorn you’ll be subjected to. Since 1995’s Mr. Smith, LL is guilty — probably more so than any other hip-hop relic with carbon dating to the ‘80s and with an active career in music — of pandering to the mainstream.
Eighteen years now we’ve gotten used to hearing LL’s name called on Clear Channel outposts across the country. And 18 years we’ve become comfortable glancing in our rearview mirrors and spying the LL two-seater creeping up steadfastly in the neighboring lane, cruising along in a hip-hop direction parallel to our own, but resolutely and stubbornly operating in a mode generally inconsistent with whatever trend was happening around him at the time. No other release in LL’s storied career has typified this practice more than Authentic, his 15th full-length album and the first one not released on Def Jam records.
Indeed Authentic carries no bias for any particular wave of contemporary pop music practice. When you can say that about an album it usually means one of two things: 1) it’s an exciting listening experience strictly because of its boundary-less aspirations; or, 2) it’s so out of touch with what the general music-listening public might find appealing that the emotional response is one of complete and total inertia. Based on what we know about how LL Cool J makes music these days, you can probably guess what this means for Authentic: it’s hard to imagine exactly who the intended audience is for this drivel. And that statement is coming from a head of the particular demographic who listens to Boyz II Men without a trace of irony, so I understand to whom LL was reaching on early- to late-aughts LPs like Ten, Todd Smith and Exit 13.
Judging by its discarded laundry list of guest appearances, Authentic is a grab at an even wider audience who love remembering the ‘90s, but most of the collaborations feel like blind flailing. The ballad “Not Leaving You Tonight” is problematic for its two cameos because, at 36 years old, I don’t know anyone who still listens to Van Halen or considers Fitz & The Tantrums a relevant purveyor of indie pop. Rap-rock hybrids “Whaddup” and “We’re The Greatest” are bad in the way tribal tattoos from the mid-’90s are bad (LL should know, he has one). The guest list on those tracks (Chuck D, Travis Barker, Tom Morello, Z-Trip, and — good lord, not again — Eddie Van Halen) reads like the seating chart at a pre-Grammy dinner party. Elsewhere, Seal sounds like he’s gasping for one final breath on “Give Me Love” while someone who sounds like LL rapping in his “on the phone with my girlfriend voice” strings together tired lover-man platitudes — oh, wait, that actually is LL. My bad.
Speaking of rhyming in platitudinous verse, Todd Smith is the bonafide king of pop-rap derivativeness, which was charming in the days of “Hey Lover” and “Imagine That”. But continuing to rely on metaphorical tropes like comparing broken hearts to “being down for the count” and womens’ healthy backsides as car part assemblages, is equivalent to reliving past high school football glory over and over on the VHS — it’s just lazy and loser-ish.
If there is a silver lining among Authentic’s fusty detritus, it’s likely to be found by those reliable casino-going patrons who drunkenly find their way to on-site dance floors after engorging the tables and slot machines with hard-earned dollars. That’s the only place for danceable, yet ultimately forgettable party music like “New Love” and “Something About You (Love the World)”, where LL employs the oldest and dirtiest trick in the book: borrowing the aging pipes of soul legends (Charlie Wilson and Earth, Wind & Fire, in this case) to make mediocre pop-funk tracks seem passable.
All of Authentic’s prior evidence takes a literal (and, honestly, sad) turn on “Closer”, where LL openly delegates himself to archaic status — uncoincidentally with the help of Monica, another holdover from the ‘90s — by stating: “LL grown-ass man/ Couldn’t give a damn if a young boy’s my fan/ Long as his mama two-step to my jam/ She cleanin’ up her house/ Mop in her hand.” How incredibly depressing is that image? Ever since his initial run of albums solidified a reputation as a Queens-bred roughneck with a penchant for mawkish R&B pillow talk, it’s been a sort of perpetual summer for LL Cool J. His voice, even his physical appearance, has somehow weathered the pull of absolute decline. But on Authentic, it’s finally starting to feel like winter for Todd Smith and, sadly, I think even he knows it.