LL Cool J headlines ‘Kings of the Mic’ tour at Riverbend
It’s been five years since LL Cool J has released an album – an eternity in the hip-hop world, where keeping a steady stream of music coming has been an important way to maintain career momentum. Between their own albums, singles and guest appearances on albums by other hip-hop artists, maintaining a chart presence is a priority in the crowded hip-hop field.
But not only has LL Cool J had an extended absence from music – although his co-starring role on the hit television series “NCIS: Los Angeles” has kept him very much in the public eye – he has returned with what he considers an unconventional album, Authentic.
“The first rule I broke is, most of the time when veteran rap artists make a new album, the first thing they do is go and grab whatever new current rap artist is out and put them on the album in order to kind of secure their fan base kind of moving forward,” LL Cool J (real name James Todd Smith) said in a recent phone interview. “You know, like, I bucked the trend.”
The make-up of the guest artists on Authentic – only one song, “Bath Salt” lacks a guest artist – also makes it a different kind of hip-hop album,” LL Cool J said.
“While most rap artists will delve into R&B a bit, a lot of them are afraid to go really beyond that and go get the Seals of the world and the Eddie Van Halens of the world and the Brad Paisleys of the world, those other artists,” he said. “Then another thing I did that was bucking the trends is I went and got acts that are actually even generations before me, like Earth Wind & Fire and Charlie Wilson, which most of the time hip-hop artists … there is a lot of ageism in hip-hop. So most people, in hip-hop, people are always trying to figure out how they can still be a teenager.”
LL Cool J let out a chuckle at that remark.
“I think that I bucked a lot of trends and did something I think that was really innovative,” he said.
The choices of guest stars, LL Cool J said, wasn’t for the sake of novelty or star power. It was all about enhancing the songs, and the music on Authentic, for the most part, supports that idea. The album remains very much rooted in the mix of pure hip-hop and R&B-laced romantic balladry that has been LL Cool J’s signature sound. But for the most part, the guests bring exactly what one would expect. Wilson (lead singer from the Gap Band) smoothly croons the soulful melody that plays off of LL Cool J’s percolating rap segment, while Van Halen adds a touch of rock edge with a stinging guitar solo. Soul/R&B star Seal’s famously grainy voice is the centerpiece of the melodic ballad “Give Me Love” (with an unusually vulnerable lyric for hip-hop from LL Cool J). “Something About You” takes on a distinctly Earth Wind & Fire sound with that group’s bold horns and its R&B refrain. “Whaddup,” which features Chuck D of Public Enemy and guitarist Tom Morello, very much has a rock/rap edge that will be familiar to fans of Morello’s band, Rage Against The Machine.
LL Cool J, who has now released 13 studio albums in a career that began with his 1985 debut, Radio, is taking his music on the road this summer, headlining a tour that features three other legendary acts from the first wave of hip-hop – Ice Cube, Public Enemy and De La Soul.
“I just wanted to do a tour that spoke to people who grew up with my music and you know, grew up with my fans,” LL Cool J said. “To me, these three acts represent people that I think are great partners for me on a tour. We have a similar fan base. We came up together. We’re all different. I mean, Cube, obviously, has all kinds of music, a little more gangster. Public Enemy has its music, Chuck D and those guys [are] a little more social/political. And De La Soul is really like more forward and cutting edge in terms of their creativity. So all of us on the tour, I felt like it had diversity, but we had a commonality from a generational standpoint.”
Once the tour is over, LL Cool J will have a thriving acting career waiting for him. He’ll return to filming the next season of “NCIS: Los Angeles,” the CBS series in which he stars alongside Chris O’Donnell as senior field agent Sam Hanna.
Doing the role of Hanna, a hard-nosed investigator with a sensitive side and a good sense of humor, has been a good challenge for him as an actor, LL Cool J said.
“It’s stretched me in amazing ways,” he said. “My chops are much sharper now, and I think people will be able to tell how I’ve grown as an actor moreso when I get to do a film when I have much more time to rehearse and kind of dig into a role. Then you’ll be able to see that I’ve grown. But it definitely has been amazing.”
LL Cool J will perform on the “Kings of the Mic Tour” on Thursday, June 27 at Riverbend Music Center, 6295 Kellogg Ave. in Cincinnati. Also on the bill are Public Enemy, Doug E. Fresh, Slick Rick, De La Soul and DJ Chuck Chillout. Gates open at 5 p.m. For more information, visit riverbend.org.
Reach DCP freelance writer Alan Sculley at AlanSculley@DaytonCityPaper.com.