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LL COOL J on his first album in 11 years, ‘THE FORCE’: “I want to do the Blackest shit in the world”

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LL COOL J has spoken to NME about returning to music after over a decade off with his upcoming album, ‘THE FORCE’ – on his mission to “do the Blackest shit in the world”.

Today (Friday June 14), the hip-hop legend dropped ‘Saturday Night Special’ with Rick Ross and Fat Joe – the lead single for his long-awaited comeback LP – as well as announcing that his 14th studio album would arrive later this year. ‘THE FORCE’ will be executively produced by fellow hip-hop juggernaut Q-Tip – best known for his own solo work and being a member of the legendary collective, A Tribe Called Quest.

“‘Saturday Night Special’ is just the beginning,” LL COOL J – real name James Todd Smith – said in a press statement. ‘There’s a lot more where this came from, and I’m hype for y’all to hear this new record. We’re doing this for the fans and for hip-hop culture.”

Speaking to NME, Smith elaborated on why ‘Saturday Night Special’ was the perfect introduction to the new era of LL COOL J.

“[I tried to] create something that wasn’t following what was going on now, and something that wasn’t trying to recapture what I did then,” COOL J told NME. “Naturally, if it has my DNA in it, it’s going to feel like LL. It just felt right to me.”

The Rock and Roll Hall of Famer went on to say he felt the song was “relevant and had enough meaning and messages in it without being preachy and boring”.

“I mean, always keep your word, always paying back is going to be relevant forever, right?
That’s a principle that’s going to always be relevant; the concept of integrity on whatever level,” he explained.

“You reach people on a real human level when you write shit that’s real, shit that matters, shit that people can actually relate to. It’s not just a song about past, current or future success but [one] about a human idea that people can connect and vibe to.”

‘Saturday Night Special’ is a glimpse of the sonic dynamic between Q-Tip and LL COOL J on ‘THE FORCE’. Smith reminisced on how he recruited the ‘Vivrant Thing’ star, saying that he told him: “I want to do the Blackest shit in the world”.

He continued: “I want the hot sauce, barbecue, pickle juice. I don’t care whether we’re doing curry chicken, fried chicken, rice and peas, or potato salad, whatever it is. I want the blackest black album I could ever make in history. And I want you to help me make that.”

And that’s the theme for ‘THE FORCE’: “We’re gonna invite people to the barbecue. Yeah, we’re gonna invite some people to the cookout.”

LL COOL J. Photo credit: Chris Parsons/Press

NME asked the ‘Luv U Better’ star what he learned about himself while making ‘THE FORCE’, to which Smith said he “learned is that [he] can still learn”.

“I took myself back to school in terms of writing songs and rapping and being an emcee and touching the mic – those are all things that I think you know,” he said before likening the period to a sportsman in their off-season working on their technique. “You can always level up, you know what I’m saying?,” he added. “You can get better in terms of how you execute life.”

And LL COOL J feels no pressure in making sure ‘THE FORCE’ reaches the record-breaking heights on his previous albums while on Def Jam Records. He was the first rapper signed to the label – which celebrates its 40th birthday this year – and was there for the launch of the pivotal record company. Then, after reaching worldwide success, six out of the 12 albums he dropped via the label have gone platinum.

However, he said he did feel “artistic pressure”, but that came directly from him. “[I] want to create something that I love, something that I can really embrace, something that I thought was amazing, something that I felt like, like was meaningful to me, something that I could love as a fan,” he told NME.

“When it comes to music and art, I’m very hard to please,” Smith continued. “I’m very challenging in that way. There are two different types of records that I have a tendency to make: sometimes I make music in a vacuum and I make it for me [or I make it] through me for the culture. And, this particular record and this song I made for the culture. This was more about for everybody. This was for the culture.”

Despite being known as a key figure in shaping rap music as we know it, on ‘THE FORCE’ LL COOL J said he wanted to be “an anomaly” and show you can be “able to take that much time off and show people what’s possible”.

“Hip-hop hasn’t seen this kind of story,” he explained.” We’re not really used to artists being able to take 10, 15 years off and then re-emerge with a project and it immediately goes to the next level and has creative impact. We’re kind of used to people either [being] out the whole time and consistently be making music, or they’re gone and that’s it.”

In his decade-plus years away from music, LL COOL J has become an esteemed actor, one of his biggest roles being Sam Hanna on the popular police detective drama NCIS: Los Angeles.

“One of the things I believe in is never limiting yourself,” COOL J said, explaining why he changed his career path. “Just because you do one thing doesn’t mean you can’t do another thing as well. You just have to put your heart and soul 1000 per cent into whatever you’re focused on.

“The show [NCIS: Los Angeles] was big all over the world, and it was great. Now it’s like, ‘OK, you did that. Now show people how much you care about your first love.’”

He added that “it felt great moving into” acting, “taking a break from music”, and “doing something different”.

“It all started when I did a guest appearance on the [1998 police series] Oz. I took that on as a personal challenge to do a drama,” he explained. “Now, I set up a new challenge for myself to show people that I can make impactful music post-NCIS and do it at a high level. Not drop a C-plus project that’s a footnote, but actually drop something impactful all over the world and has a creative impact.”

LL Cool J as Sam Hanna in 'NCIS: Hawai'i'. Photo credit: Karen Neal/CBS via Getty Images
LL COOL J as Sam Hanna in ‘NCIS: Hawai’i’. Photo credit: Karen Neal/CBS via Getty Images

However, COOL J is returning to rap music after one of the most transformative periods for the genre, becoming more and more mainstream. While talking about the state of hip-hop nowadays, the entertainment polymath said that rappers are no longer “underdogs” and “a lot of people are probably exhausted from seeing rappers just wallowing in money”.

“I don’t feel like any artist has a particular responsibility to speak to the world,” he explained. “That being said, the purity of the art form [and] the artistic and cultural relevance of songwriting – that’s what people are complaining about. They get tired of that. They get tired of people being shallow.”

He shared that he believes that’s why hip-hop “needs an album like ‘THE FORCE’”, so it can have “that balance”.

‘THE FORCE’ will be out this fall via Def Jam Recordings / Virgin Music Group in junction with the 40th anniversary of the legendary label.

Many have said that “hip-hop is a young man’s game” – but with last year marking 50 years of the genre, COOL J rejected that idea and said “hip-hop is more than that” and “that’s a narrow way of looking at it.”

“The genre just turned 50-years-old. So, what are we going to call it in 100 years? How is that mindset even sustainable? You haven’t had an opportunity to see artists continue to grow. Ultimately, the music determines that. We can talk all we want, but how’s that music sounding, b?” he argued.

One person COOL J feels is still keeping hip-hop alive is Kendrick Lamar – especially after his recent feud with Drake, which he said was “good for hip-hop”.

“The pace at which [Lamar] put out music, the bars he put together, the beat selection, [and] the song selection – it was all right. He didn’t shy away from it, and I liked that. I like guys who are willing to compete – not haters, but those who are willing to have some friendly competition and keep it about the music and the culture. I thought it was good for hip-hop.”

In other news, the Kendrick Lamar-Drake conflict is apparently over after Drake deleted all of his Instagram posts related to it.

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