TORONTO – Rap legend LL Cool J is about to release his first album in five years, but he’s been in the news lately for an entirely different reason: his controversial “Accidental Racist” collaboration with white-hatted country star Brad Paisley.
The quirky single was posited as a conversation between Paisley, representing white Southerners, and LL, with Paisley trying to explain the supposedly innocuous intention behind his Confederate flag-branded T-shirt while his New York-reared counterpart simultaneously tries to understand while also explaining how the symbol makes him feel.
Well-meaning though it was, the song and its race-probing lyrics, including LL’s couplet “If you don’t judge my do-rag/I won’t judge your red flag,” touched off a firestorm online — USA Today mused on whether the tune was an “epic fail” while a piece in the Atlantic was headlined “‘Accidental Racist’ is Actually Just Racist.”
Certainly, LL himself noticed the passionate reaction.
“That’s the first song that I’ve ever done that (brought), like, CNN headlines!” the 45-year-old rapper told The Canadian Press in a telephone interview over the weekend with a hearty laugh.
With his new album “Authentic” out this Tuesday, LL Cool J talked about bucking rap trends, ignoring the charts and, yes, the overwhelming response to “Accidental Racist.”
CP: It’s been nearly five years since you released “Exit 13.” That’s the longest amount of time between albums of your career. Did you need a break?
LL: It’s definitely a long time, man. I can’t even imagine really doing that. I would never have thought I would do that. Five years. But I’m glad, man. It took me some time and I got my mind right and my spirit right and kind of grew a little bit. I feel I was able to put together an album that broke some new ground and pushed the culture of hip hop.
CP: On “Bath Salt,” you rap that you were afraid to come back after such a long time away.
LL: Yeah, absolutely. Who wants to come back and sound like they’re tripping over themselves? To be totally candid, I didn’t have to make this album, man. It’s not like I had a contractual obligation to make it. It was something I pursued whole-heartedly because I just wanted to make it. I had a strong desire to make it. I just love music that much. I didn’t want to come out and drop the ball and not deliver what I felt was my best, or at least appropriate to where I’m at in my life.
CP: The album features collaborations with artists across all genres — you’ve got Eddie Van Halen, Bootsy Collins, Seal, Chuck D of Public Enemy, Tom Morello, Travis Barker, Snoop Dogg, Monica and Brad Paisley, among others. What guided those decisions?
LL: I didn’t want any boundaries. I wanted to make a limitless record. Working and hosting the Grammys and being around so many types of great musicians, it really just made me realize how I love all types of music. I wanted to make an album that didn’t pigeonhole me in one specific area. I didn’t want to make an album that was only for a certain type of people or a certain type of stereotype. I wanted to make an album that music fans would love.
CP: You’ve said this is the first time you made a record without worrying about charts. Why?
LL: Because, man, if it was all about charts and numbers and airplay and all that stuff, then I would have went and tried to bribe all the youngest, hottest artists to be on the album. In terms of whoever the current top star is, the normal cast of players. But I just feel like that can come off a bit contrived and be a bit incestuous, you know what I’m saying? It just is not where I’m at as an artist. I just felt like, you know what, I’m going to have to take the bull by the horns and make music for myself, and not be concerned with charting and positions and what people think about the scan. I didn’t consider any of that. I just made something form the heart.
I wanted to break out of all those moulds and all those boxes we put hip hop records in, and do something special, something that would mean something in 20 years.
CP: On “Closer,” you sound unimpressed with the current state of rap music, and you rap that you’re not interested in chasing teenage fans — something I bet your longtime fans appreciate?
LL: Yeah, I don’t do features that chase teenage fans. I ain’t doing that man. Don’t get it wrong, man. I do respect a lot of these young artists — but I think there’s a time and a place to make music with different people, and I think after a five-year layoff, that ain’t what I wanna be doing….
I’m just not going to do what people say. It’s like this unwritten rule: whoever the top three or four rappers are, when the old-school rapper comes back, he has to have them on his album. What is that? (laughs) It’s like an unsaid rule! I’m not doing that.
CP: Your song with Brad Paisley, “Accidental Racist,” prompted some really strong reaction, much of it negative. Did you pay attention to it, and what did you make of the response?
LL: Yeah, I paid attention to it. I thought, obviously at the extreme ends of the spectrum, people totally missed the point and just drew the wrong conclusion. I think people in the centre got it and it created a conversation, and caused people to think about that issue. And I think that’s a healthy thing for America. I think that it shook up some bruised blood and got people to have a conversation…. So I have to say man, I think we did our job as artists. It’s like the ’60s, man. When people made songs, they had to matter…. I can’t guarantee all songs are going to have that kind of whirlwind effect, but it’s nice to do something that matters. I’m grateful.
CP: When you say that people drew the wrong conclusions, what do you mean?
LL: Well what they missed is there are people who thought that when I compared a do-rag to a Confederate flag that I was somehow trivializing slavery and what the Confederate flag represents to, let’s say, African Americans and just the history of America in general. But I in no way was doing that. What I was singing, when I compared the do-rag to the Confederate flag, what I was talking about was when you think about the Trayvon Martins of the world, and kids being killed over hoodies, and the suspicion, and the prison-industrial complex, and people not being able to get jobs because of the style of their dress, and people being arrested and harassed.
My thing is, OK, if you want me to tolerate a symbol because you say the symbol doesn’t mean to you what it means to so many others, if that’s the case, then on my end, what I need you to do is not judge me based on the clothing and not judge my kids based on how they dress, but judge them based on their character. And so that’s what that was about. And I think people, they just arbitrarily decided to only look at the external and the shallow. They had a very shallow understanding of what we were saying. And any time you have hyper-sensitivity and shallow understanding or a lack of true understanding, it’s a toxic combination.
CP: You mentioned you didn’t need to make this record. So why did you? Do you still feel like you have something to prove?
LL: Oh man, I definitely have something to prove. The thing I have to prove is that I can make a great record…. That’ll never go away. I want to show people I have the ability to make great music. I always have something to prove. Without a doubt. And as an artist, all we want to do is see people happy when they listen to the music and know that they enjoy the music. That’s a wonderful feeling.
Answers have been edited and condensed.