Chiseled rap royal LL Cool J and haggard guitar god Eddie Van Halen may seem like strange bedfellows. (For instance, one loves the gym; the other loves the Jim Beam.) But to the famously muscled hip-hop mogul, their unlikely flow-meets-fret pairing on his bold new album makes a beautifully twisted sense. • After all, at this point in their iconic careers, they've both earned the right to mix it up. • "I really wanted to do something unconventional," Cool J, 45, tells me during a short but high-octane phone call. • He will perform offbeat tracks from Authentic — as well as his braggadolicious hits — tonight (June 6) at the Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg as part of the Kings of the Mic Tour. "I wanted to surprise you guys musically, get people I've respected and put 'em on the album. I wanted to make a crazy workout record, you know?" • Thus, Blink-182's Travis Barker, alt-rockers Fitz and the Tantrums, soulster Seal and country singer Brad Paisley (more on him in a second) all play on Authentic. Eddie VH, now 58, shreds on two cuts, Not Leaving You Tonight and We're the Greatest. • "Eddie is an absolute genius and a mad scientist in the studio," says a still-wowed Cool J, who then proceeds to rap a verse from We're the Greatest: "I'm on a hacksaw tour! Eddie got a Frankenstein aimed at your door!" • By the way, it's a total geeked-out thrill having LL Cool J slam a vicious verse just for you.
• • •
Ladies Love Cool James admits that being one of showbiz's most notable multihyphenates — other jobs include hosting the Grammys, starring on the CBS show NCIS: Los Angeles, and dabbling in fashion and movies — has taken juice away from his first love: music. Authentic is his first album since 2008's Exit 13.
"If I stayed in the game, I'd get sharper for sure," he admits. "Music is always calling me, but I wanted to try other stuff. So I have to adjust my expectations a bit. But this is a good start."
He has earned the right to roam, having been a star since '85, going platinum with his prodigious debut album Radio and brash cuts like I Can't Live Without My Radio and Rock the Bells.
Dozens of smashes followed: I'm Bad, I Need Love, Going Back to Cali, I'm That Type of Guy, Around the Way Girl, Mama Said Knock You Out, Doin' It.
He has also earned the right to take wild chances, not just to inspire fans but to inspire himself as well. Of course, palling around with Eddie Van Halen is one thing. Making Accidental Racist with Paisley is another.
Oh, you've heard the song?
Cool J laughs when I ask him if he's relieved that he has the less controversial collaboration with Paisley on his album: the sweetly benign Live for You, on which Brad coos the hook.
Paisley, on the other hand, got the infamously polarizing duet Accidental Racist on his new record, Wheelhouse. The song is a dialogue between a Southern white man and a black man from New York: "Dear Mr. White Man, I wish you understood / What the world is really like when you're livin' in the hood."
It means well.
People despised it anyway.
"As an artist, you express the thoughts that are on your mind," Cool J says about people taking issue with any of his songs.
"I'm not doing music for controversial reasons. I do it for the love. There are no rules in music, you create what you create. When we decided to do Accidental Racist, we didn't know people on the fringe would react the way they did. But music is like a Rorschach test, isn't it?"
• • •
LL Cool J has always possessed great amounts of swagger and lip-licking sex appeal and, well, usually not much need for a shirt. On the other hand, he has been happily married to Simone Johnson since 1995; they have four children together.
He's a pro, a driven winner, a family man, which hasn't always helped his reputation in a rap genre that has become increasingly hard core over the years. Cool J has never been a head case like Kanye or a distant overlord like Jay-Z or an instigator like Lil Wayne.
Still, not many people have adapted to showbiz with the cunning of Cool J. And rusty or not, few MCs — no matter what age — throw down with the same nimble force and confidence.
When he goes up against the other Kings of the Mic — Public Enemy, Ice Cube, De La Soul, all combining for one of the most rambunctious summer tours in memory — rest assured he's going to come out fighting.
"Everybody's going to try and rip that stage in half," LL Cool J says, chuckling. "I don't want to be the weakest link."
Sean Daly can be reached at email@example.com. Follow @seandalypoplife on Twitter.