Album Review: LL Cool’s ‘Authentic’ shows rapper’s true colors

In the last few years, LL Cool J has gained fame around the world as Special Agent Sam Hanna on the hit TV show “NCIS: Los Angeles,” as well as host of the Grammy Awards, but now he”s back to his roots with the rapper”s first album in five years, out April 30.

While the title is “Authentic,” it could just as easily be called “LL Cool J and Friends,” given how many guests he has stop by. The album plays like an aural variety show as different artists ranging from Snoop Dogg to Eddie Van Halen, Seal, and Brad Paisley drop by on various tracks with varying results. The one constant is that LL Cool J sounds like he”s having the time of his life, whether he”s spitting rhythms on in-your-face tracks or seducing the ladies with a number of love songs on the set.

If there”s any doubt that LL Cool J may have gone soft since 2008″s “Exit 13,” he lays any such notion to rest with aggressive opener “Bath Salt,” which serves also as a salute to Salt N Pepa. That aggression plays out well on a number of other tracks, including the genre-busting “Whaddup,” featuring Public Enemy”s Chuck D, Blink-182″s Travis Barker, Rage Against the Machine”s Tom Morello, and Z-Trip (Enjoy the Beastie Boy-sounding homage in the middle).

As “Whaddup” and heavy tracks such as “We”re The Greatest,” featuring Eddie Van Halen and Barker,  rap and rock have a natural alliance here (although on the latter, his line about wondering why the Pope resigned is a bit of clunker in an otherwise compelling track).

He also embraces alternative music on “Not Leaving Here Tonight” featuring Fitz & the Tantrums. Fitz”s pop smoothness plays nicely against LL Cool J”s gruff vocals and Eddie Van Halen”s tasty guitar solo (even if you”ll swear it”s Enrique Iglesias singing here).

But LL Cool J doesn”t stand for Ladies Love Cool J for nothing and he is eager to show his romantic powers on so-smooth-you”ll-melt tracks like “Between The Sheetz” featuring Mickey Shiloh. He and R&B legend Charlie Wilson get a serious groove going on “New Love,” and his old-school jam “Something About You” featuring Earth Wind & Fire; Wilson, and Melanie Thornton could make you blush.

Unlike their well-meaning, if ham fisted, collaboration on Paisley”s “Accidental Racist,” their duet here,  “Live For You,”  works much better and Paisley stretches vocally in a way that renders him almost unrecognizable.

Is this cutting edge? Not in the slightest, but that”s not the purpose here. Instead, LL Cool J has made an album that, -as odd as it may sound to call it this-is Adult Contemporary Rap meant to appeal to fans who have grown up with LL Cool J and are happy to have him back. They want his sure-fire raps, but are happy to wrap the rap around gentler melodies. While this may strike some as a little defanged, it never feels like he”s pushing too hard.