As Def Jam's first signee in 1984, LL Cool J has spent two decades balancing love songs with braggadocio, setting an example that most contemporary MCs have followed. Now the rapper, who also has appeared in 30 films and is producing a new untitled drama for CBS' fall season, is working on the final album in his Def Jam deal, "Exit 13." Due Aug. 5, the set is led by the single "Baby" featuring the-Dream.
Q: You recently told the audience at WQHT (Hot 97) New York's Summer Jam that people have forgotten about you but you're going to jog their memory. What did you mean?
LL Cool J: I plan to deliver some great material this year, and I think it's important that people understand my level of passion for "Exit 13." My music suffered a bit on my last two or three records because I made my decisions as an actor and businessman first.
Q: One of the new songs, "I Cry," features Lil' Mo. How did that collaboration come about?
LL Cool J: People suggested other artists, but Lil' Mo delivered the quality of singing that I wanted on the record, and I believe in her as a talent. Talent doesn't always give you the ability to make great records. Those elements are separate, but I was able to harness her talent and put her in a position to sound great on a song. From the response we're getting at radio, people agree with me.
Q: What producers are working on "Exit 13?"
LL Cool J: I'm working with a lot of young, burgeoning producers, not many well-known guys. DJ Scratch is the most famous producer thus far on "Exit," and he produced the song "Rockin' With the Goat." The same way I worked with a lot of producers early in their careers and they became popular, these guys -- Raw, Uncut, Illphonics and Suits -- will be the next crop of A-list producers. There are a lot of symphonic instruments on this record, and it has a melodic musicality that I think goes beyond anything I've done in years.
Q: Since this is your last album via Def Jam, are you looking to sign with another major label?
LL Cool J: I'm not looking for a record deal right now because I'm not looking past this project. "Exit 13" is too important to start thinking about where I want to go label-wise. I want to give people the best record I possibly can, service this project completely and tour. I'll deal with that afterward.
Q: Focus is understandable, but as a marquee artist, it's odd that you're not considering other labels.
LL Cool J: After 24 years, I'm on my 13th record. so why would I be thinking about labels? I have so many other things going on in my life. If I only rapped, then I would be focused on my next situation. But I have a dramatic TV show with CBS that I'm getting ready to film, I've shot 30 movies, and I have a digital distribution company, LL Cool J Enterprises. It's not about looking to the next deal. That would be almost arrogant. Strategically, it's all about "Exit 13" being great, because whatever I want to do is based on what this record does. I'm better off making sure that this record is successful so that I have more options.
Q: Will labels be hesitant to sign you after you publicly challenged former Def Jam president Jay-Z's business decisions last year?
LL Cool J: I didn't say anything that wasn't valid. I'm not looking for another deal, but I wouldn't be uninterested either. Regarding my comments about Def Jam, if I make the world's worst record and you accept it, then your responsibility is to promote it. If you think it's the world's worst record and you can't promote it, then don't accept it. I never made my views a personal attack on anybody at Def Jam or tried to degrade anyone's reputation. I'm just glad that there's been a regime change. It feels like the new Lakers. I'm not going to focus on the negative.