Rap icon LL Cool J gets straight to the point with the title of his upcoming 13th studio album, Authentic Hip-Hop. "It's real natural and true, and it's really me being myself," LL Cool J told Rolling Stone of the album – his first since 2008's Exit 13 – during rehearsals for tonight's CBS' Grammy Nominations Concert Live, which he's co-hosting with Taylor Swift. "It's mature. I'm not pandering to chase teenagers. They're welcome to listen to it, but it's really a record for their parents . . . But it's for their parents who know the words to 'Rapper's Delight,' know the words to 'The Message,' know my songs, know my music."
Luckily for fans of the rapper's old-school, irreverent rhymes, relating to an audience that's his own age doesn't mean he's dropping his trademark jocularity. "Some of it's stupid, some of it's funny, some of it's mindless, brainless. And some of it is quite profound and a little bit more advanced and challenging intellectually," he says of Authentic Hip-Hop's 15 tracks, which vary from foot-stomping club jams to smooth ballads and some biting commentary on contemporary hip-hop's status quo.
The veteran emcee isn't striving for nostalgia, however. Instead, he intends to stay relevant by looking forward and staying true to his instincts. "For me, it's really about making art from the heart and not concerning yourself with whether or not you're going be commercially viable on this project," he says. "It's me doing what I think is authentic hip-hop now. It doesn't sound retro, but it's authentic."
That said, he readily admits doesn't have any contemporary hip-hop influences worthy of namedropping. "No," he says matter-of-factly. "I'd be lying – I'd be making up an answer. But I appreciate some of the stuff that's going on out there. I respect it, but my job as an artist, I feel, is to lead . . . I'm not worried about, like, a new sound. I'm just trying to up the quality, you know?"
Continuing a 16-year partnership, LL tapped longtime collaborators the Trackmasters (R. Kelly, Mary J. Blige, Nas, Mariah Carey) to co-produce Authentic Hip-Hop, which features guest appearances from Joe, Monica and up-and-comer Range.
Though LL Cool J has hosted the Grammy nominations every year since the event's 2008 inception, he says he's still getting used to the gig. "I wish I could feel like Billy Crystal," he jokes. "You know, that's another talent level. But I feel good about what I'm doing."
He adds that hosting a show in the mecca of country music is also a little intimidating. "It's like, 'Do [people here] even know what I do? Do they understand my sensibilities?' It's new, so it's cool . . . All you can do is be yourself, right? Is it the secret? I don't know. The secret to failure is trying to please everybody. Bill Cosby said that, and I believe that!"
Authentic Hip-Hop track listing:
"Something About U (FTW)"
"Where Ya At (BOSS)"
"Dream With Me"
"Girl So Bad"
"Jump On It"