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LL Cool J - Authentic

6/10

Just as I sat down to write this review, something quite serendipitous occurred. I signed in to Spotify to discover that Snoop Dogg and Dr Dre's live performance at Coachella 2012 had been uploaded and was sitting there, all shiny and new, ready for me to stream. So I am. And it's good, it's brilliant, and it is relevant to this review.

Now why, LL, have you gone and called your record "Authentic"? There was a time in hip-hop when his name sparked fear in other rappers, when he was as vital to the scene as the Snoops and the Dre's, and yes even the holy grail of 2Pac and Biggie were not too far above his standing. "I Need Love" was released in 1987, and it was breath-taking. It was pioneering, as was much of his early work. "Mama Said Knock You Out" came out in 1990, one of the greatest hip hop records of all time, brushing other emcees aside and rocketing LL to the peak of the elite in the craft. I cannot overstate it enough, the man was an institution, there is no doubting that. So why, then, am I concerned with an album title that appears to echoe such bold statements?

Well older rappers have traditionally struggled to find relevance in contemporary landscapes. Dr. Dre contents himself behind the boards, delaying his comeback project so regularly it's not even rated a mention anymore. Public Enemy are releasing something new soon, or it already came out, I could google it but do you really care about a new PE record? What is Tone Loc doing now? Ice T is on Law and Order, and Run-DMC haven't released a record since 2001. There are of course exceptions to this rule. Jay-Z is arguably the most relevant rapper in the world (somehow, a superhuman feat). Nas released one of the top albums of the year in 2012. Snoop Dogg transformed himself to Snoop Lion and provided the shock of a decade, "Reincarnated" is utterly brilliant. But LL Cool J inhabits a separate path. Preferring to soften up as the years have progressed, his highlights have been beats laced by Timbaland and ready-made radio smashes which have propelled sales nicely, and may have contributed to a sense of delusion in relation to his current reputation.

LL now devotes much of his time to furthering his brand, through TV and film appearances and hosting duties via the Grammies. Rather than keeping his finger on the pulse of hip hop, his brand has strayed drastically from the true rapper/actor mould (think Ludacris for a success story, or Eminem), culminating in the excrutiatingly poor decision to release "Accidental Racist" with Brad Paisley (for the full horrific story go here: http://www.theboot.com/2013/04/14/accidental-racist-brad-paisley/).  As Authentic as a Joan Rivers skin graft, and, it pains me to say, about the same amount of teeth. It's a pity, because the record isn't offensively bad. It suffers from the cancer that is blandness, but it's almost as if it's in remission. The scars are there but there are more good days than bad. Opener "Bath Salt" explodes in to your ears via a brutal Trackmasters beat that throws back to their early 2000s heyday, and sees LL at his most breathless. It feels like a warm up, he's running suicides as he feels his way back in to the art form. Conflicting thoughts and ideas spill out, the first verse has him cocky and assured, 'Never go against me, you lack resources / What? I skywalk with the forces / Back in the 80's I was playin in Porsches', yet he weakens in the second, doubt seeps in, 'Honestly I was scared to come back'. It's a conundrum he tussles with more than once, as if his mind is doubtful yet everytime he looks out of the booth he sees another $500,000 car he owns and it strengthens his will and resolve.

Of course we don't REALLY pay LL to rap. Included in his admission charge is 90% entertainment, this is no Immortal Technique or stupidly skilled Slaughterhouse record. Big budgets create big fun, and, even after a split with Def Jam and a release by indie label 429 Records, the cheque written for this project had blank written in huge capitals all over it. Whilst Trackmasters are on hand to provide most of the production, the guest list is long and dizzying. Eddie Van Halen (twice), Charlie Wilson, Snoop Dogg, Melody Thornton, Earth, Wind & Fire, Boosty Collins, Travis Barker, Chuck D, Tom Morello and Brad Paisley to name a few. Admittedly, the variety is overwhelming at first, there's an almost complete lack of flow or rhythm. "Bath Salt" is followed by the stock standard ballad, "Not Leaving You Tonight", as LL fits snugly back in to his romancer role. Then the slightly annoying "New Love", which packs the delightful lines 'I need some of that, so fresh out the pack / I'll pop yo cherry like a bottle, take a swing at that'. Bear in mind he is 45 years old with 4 children and a loving wife, and it makes it all the more devilish. This morphs in to the opening line of we came to party, 'I just wanna make sweet love to you baby, I wanna touch you all over... Ah Please!' before Fatman Scoop serves up another sparkling lyrical display, 'we came to party' repeated with regularity. It's actually a wonderful change up, you're right hooked, you think you're listening to another 'I Need Love' before a stand up gangster party anthem drops. And this feels much more Authentic, Snoop drops by to lend some desperately needed cred.

There's no escaping LL's legitimacy when it comes to balladry, gallantry, and smooth love grooves. His guest on "Give Me Love", Seal, released "Kiss From a Rose", and yet James sounds silky smooth in comparison. He's the ultimate player on anthems such as this, his first 2 lines are "Honestly, I'm afraid to give love / Deep down I'm afraid to be judged". At 45, and with his physique, can you imagine how that would go down at his local speed dating venue, or PTA meeting? Single mum's would be cooing and queuing around the block! "Between The Sheets" delivers another highlight, so intense is his vocal performance you almost have to laugh at his earlier gangsterisms. James may dream of a Drake-like split personality when it comes to the ladies, but his true nature lies between the sheets, more late 90s R&B than say a Twin Shadow or a Miguel. I mean "Eye contact, kiss me, I kiss back / Right there, I miss that, I can't resist that", that'd make a smitten teenager blush with embarrassment, yet when LL exhales it's a sweet caress, a grown man with a deft touch and a clear link in to the female psyche. It's here that the record shines. Plenty of artists have built careers around the sensitive thug image, none have defined it with the pinpoint accuracy that James has achieved. Ladies really do love Cool James.

Why then, you may ask, are there collaborations with the likes of Tom Morello, Travis Barker and Eddie Van Halen littered all over "Authentic"? It's so difficult to explain and dissect the dynamic of such a release when the variety is so overwhelming. These tracks feel much more suited to something along the lines of "The DEFinition". On "We Came To Party" his first line sheds light on the problem, he explains he is the "oldest man in the club". This theme carries in to "Whaddup", a thumping raunch of a beat orchestrated by Travis Barker SMASHING skins and Tom Morello in the periphery shredding strings. LL is woefully out of time. As these two run rampant you feel like you're watching your overweight uncle chundering along behind them, huge sweat patches, blowing hard trying desperately to keep up. It's not the in control, smoothed out player image at all, it's the dead-beat divorced dad with a beer gut trying to relive his former glories. What compounds this problem? Listening to it on Spotify, I only realised after about 8 listens I had downloaded the clean edit.. Toothless.

6/10
It's like the daytime television he has come to embrace as part of his image and brand. Mildly entertaining when you've over-indulged the night before and are resigned to a day on the couch. Nothing too taxing to exacerbate your sad state, and something to put on one lazy Sunday when it's raining outside and you need a distraction for an hour before you start cooking dinner. Authentic? Well thank god the world still has Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg live at Coachella, because LL erased his right to that claim more than a decade ago. 
Best Tracks: Bath Salt, We Came To Party, Give Me Love

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