Do the ladies still love cool J? His shredded torso still bedecks the covers of glossy magazines, he hosted this year's Grammys, and more recently he kept bloggers in business by joining Brad Paisley on "Accidental Racist," the timing of which was hardly accidental. Authentic exudes a comeback confidence that smacks of Dr. Dre in 2000, especially in LL's curiously self-conscious moments: "Honestly, I was scared to come back/It was ugly not knowin' how the game would react/They said, 'My old gym teacher ain't supposed to rap.'" Not every line is sharp, but too much self-awareness would torpedo a mainstream hip-hop artist. The beats here don't always pop, but Authentic offers plenty of lyrical pleasures across 12 rather dense tracks—less bloated than the garden-variety, 18-song hip-hop album, but with plenty of substance nonetheless. Maybe that's why LL left the most memorable lines to Brad Paisley on "Accidental Racist": His muse may have been temporarily pooped.
LL marshals his other guests with a satisfying conceptual consistency. He isn't merely releasing a "comeback" album; he's also crafting a tribute to the musical referents of modern hip-hop too often forgotten by latter-day (yes) "sucka-ass MCs." This persistent notion of legacy explains various appearances by the old guard of R&B: two songs with Charlie Wilson, one with Bootsy Collins, one with Earth, Wind & Fire, and two very old-school cameos from Snoop Dogg. Eddie Van Halen, meanwhile, makes not one, but two appearances, his famous "brown sound" helping move things along on "We're the Greatest." Van Halen takes another solo on "Not Leaving You Tonight," a schmaltzy slow jam that runs by the numbers for the first three minutes until Van Halen enters with a guitar solo straight out of 1974. It's a throwback, for sure, but it's also a sidesplitting union of unlikely sounds—as though Van Halen walked into the wrong cocktail party and got crabby about it. The comedy is unintentional, and inescapable.
As LL makes declarations about the game and his role in it, he also sounds like a man finally recognizing the uses of emotional intelligence. "Not Leaving You Tonight" is basically the obverse of Biggie's "Fucking You Tonight." It's that rare asexual slow jam. Instead of rhapsodizing about the tightness of the "kitty-cat," LL addresses a woman (one his own age!), offering a "shoulder to cry on" and a sympathetic consideration of her various plights: "The haters get cynical and call you spoiled/Not knowin' 'bout the drama in which you're embroiled." On "New Love," he pledges eternal fidelity during the honeymoon period of a fresh relationship, a vow the rapper knows is false but cherishes nonetheless. (He also finds time on this track to throw an odd, miniature diss in the direction of Xzibit.)
But the real point, naturally, is that LL is back, and you can thank him later. The hook to "Bath Salt" more or less encapsulates the sentiment: "Went back to the basement/Hands on my nuts—that's product placement/The game lost its flavor/You know I wonder where the taste went." The album's blend of triumphalist forward thinking and nostalgic dues-paying is meant to establish LL's own bona fides, taste-wise. The execution, it must be said, isn't commensurate with the concept. "We Came to Party" is a hard-grind Southern beat that smacks of Atlanta even as the rapper enjoys bottle service with Russian oligarchs. LL sounds ambivalent about Georgia's recent hip-hop primacy: "The game moved to the South, I just closed my mouth/Intellect like Belichick when he was switchin' the routes." Listeners can probably gauge the scope of LL's intellect by noting that he chooses a football coach rather than, say, Kant or Patton or Einstein or Nate Silver.
There's an unsettling sample from what sounds like Pier Paolo Pasolini's The Gospel According to St. Matthew, in which the phrase "Before him all nations are nothing" echoes to ominous and distasteful effect. But this is the guy who gave us "Rock the Bells"; "Doin' It," without which far less of "it" would have been done; and "Momma Said Knock You Out," an early and formative instance of a rapper responding to his critics in blunt but also considered fashion. Three decades as a wildly successful rapper/hip-hopreneur is hard to argue with. LL still has unquenchable ambitions: "I'm too old for the games/No time for the lames/Next challenge: Get the next generation screamin' my name." The next generation probably isn't listening, let alone screaming. But older listeners will find a wistful pleasure in hearing what may be the most heartfelt effort of LL's career.