Critics have weighed in: LL Cool J‘s new album Authentic isn’t a rap revival, and his verse of Brad Paisley‘s “Accidental Racist” — specifically, “If you don’t judge my gold chains / I’ll forget the iron chains” — was a mistake. Throughout his 29-year career, the rap pioneer has often been accused of selling out, throwing himself into genres and styles to the point where it feels generic.
However, if it wasn’t for his attempts at crossover success, hip hop would not be as ubiquitous as it is today. It’s funny that Authentic arrived as longtime rival Jay-Z unveiled the hip-hop-influenced soundtrack to The Great Gatsby, in which Jigga himself provides its only straightforward rap song. LL may pick Seal when Jay picks Lana Del Rey, but the point of their newest releases is one and the same: find common ground across genres.
In his 13 albums total LL has made tons of mistakes, but he’s also been criticized for moves that were mostly unheard of, but later opened rap up to new possibilities. Here are some of the biggest.
He Set Radio Standards, Then Broke ‘Em
To little else but Rick Rubin‘s back beat, a teenaged LL Cool J stomped into hip hop as a one-man Run-DMC, and with one of rap’s first commercially successful albums. In his debut Radio he rapped hard as hell and, in songs like “Dear Yvette,” helped establish the genre’s ruthlessly hyper-masculine standards: “Like Santa Claus said, you’re a ho ho ho.”
So, while his moniker’s always stood for Ladies Love Cool James, rap fans were still shocked to hear what came next — how LL actually lived up to his name. In follow-up Bigger & Deffer, he released the first-ever rap song to be a No. 1 R&B hit, 1987′s “I Need Love.” LL Cool J embodied everything that he once stomped over: soft, weak, at a woman’s mercy.
Rap fans accused him of selling out, and to an extent Radio‘s hyper-masculine standards still presides over the genre today. Thanks to his flirtations with R&B though, LL helped create more room within the game and for a bigger audience — at worst, for mainstream rappers include records-turned-”songs for the ladies” into their repertoire; and at best, for innovators like Missy Elliott and Drake.
He Returned to Form, Then Went Bi-coastal
In 1990, as if to silence critics, LL Cool J released his fourth LP Mama Said Knock You Out. The title track was perfect for Radio fans, as Rolling Stone called the album a “whopping punch.” At the same time though, LL was already looking to influences outside his Queens neighborhood. For Mama‘s predecessor, 1989′s Walking with a Panther, he reunited with Rubin — for a song called “Going to Cali.”
Turns out, it foreshadowed Mama‘s follow-up 14 Shots to the Dome. Inspired by West Coast gangsta rap, LL hysterically reports of a crossfire (“Crossroads”) and confusingly wove innuendos of an important reference in the East Coast-West Coast feud (“Pink Cookies in a Plastic Bag Get Crushed by Buildings”). While the Marley Marl-produced “How I’m Comin’” hit No. 1 on Billboard’s Rap chart, critics complained that 14 rang false because LL had already made his East Coast origins known.
“Proof we didn’t need that his talent is as phat as an elefant’s phart and his brain is the size of a pea,” critic Robert Christgau wrote. “Only it isn’t his brain — it’s his ability to comprehend contradiction.” Now however, to criticize rap regionalism would be a moot point, as Bay Area rappers channel Queens influences and Harlem native A$AP Rocky looks to Houston.
He Left Farmers Boulevard for the Clubs
While LL Cool J perfected the personae he’d created (scrappy battle rapper, mischievous bachelor, committed partner) and consistently earned top spots on Billboard charts, he also became susceptible to a shift in mainstream hip hop’s priorities — Instead of acting as a neighborhood watch, rappers wanted to bask in opulence.
In response LL dove right into the club-oriented scene. Diddy (Sean “Puffy” Combs at the time), produced Phenomenon, while G.O.A.T. Featuring James T. Smith — The Greatest of All Time boasted SUV-ready beats. These albums charted well, but critics lamented that LL’s lyrics had grown lackluster. Meanwhile, his changes in production seemed to give away that he wasn’t dictating rap standards any more — he was trying to keep up.
In 2010, Jay-Z referenced LL he talked of his approach to The Blueprint 3: “We’ve seen people like LL Cool J have longevity, and we respect the heritage of what he’s done, but it’s not like, right now, he’s competing on the same level as Lil Wayne. I think the problem with people, as they start to mature, they say, ‘Rap is a young man’s game,’ and they keep trying to make young songs.”
At the very least, at Jay-Z noted, LL was still standing in a rap game filled with options. And as his best — Mr. Smith ‘s “Control Myself,” 10‘s “Luv U Better,” The DEFinition‘s “Headsprung” — LL showed that if done right, he could pull off collaborations with Jennifer Lopez, Pharrell, and Timbaland with ease. It’s these moments that proved that charisma, not age was king — a lesson that 2 Chainz also epitomized with his major-label debut Based on a T.R.U. Story. which he released at age 35.
He Mobbed Up — But Not Within Rap
After he finished his 12-album (!) record deal with Def Jam, then concentrated for a few years on acting and the Grammys, LL announced Authentic with a new single “Ratchet,” as in he was making fun of it. Especially considering his past, up-for-anything approach, the curmudgeon attitude felt like a cop-out. Fortunately he had the sense to ditch it, plus the album’s initial Hip Hop approach.
Jay-Z’s dipped his toes into crossover collaborations — a Chris Martin feature one year, an Alphaville sample later on. Collision Course, his mash-up EP with Linkin Park, came after unsolicited mash-ups like The Grey Album. In Authentic LL dives into funk, R&B and club bangers without abandon or precedent. As a result, even the kindest reviews bring up his cross-genre moves as if their sheer existence is a punchline in itself. (The Boston Globe: “Certainly, metal hip-hop is more compromise than authentic…”)
However, considering hip hop’s evolution from a New York youth-driven movement to a global form of expression, perhaps it was only due time before Van Halen contributed to not one, but two rap songs — and, yes, that a song like “Accidental Racist” was made. “[Authentic]‘s got everybody from Eddie Van Halen to Fitz & the Tantrums because, to me, I’m not gonna be forced into not participating with people and not inviting them into what I’m doing,” LL said in an illuminating chat with SPIN.
LL’s use of the word “forced” is crucial. His career, plus the criticism he’s received, seems to reflect a greater, still-heated debate surrounding culture at large: whether to keep it intact or open it to change, keep people out or let people in. LL’s long known and maintained his stance, and despite our own resistance, he’s forged a career out of risks and mistakes — firsts that provided a learning experience, if not proved themselves vital for rap.