By Steve Weinstein
By Bryan Bierman
By Lindsey Rhoades
By Chaz Kangas
By Ben Westhoff and Sarah Purkrabek
By Jena Ardell
By Jesse Sendejas Jr.
By Katherine Turman
Exit 13 is LL Cool J's final album for Def Jam, which released his debut, Radio—dare I say it?—nearly a quarter-century ago. So at this, the culmination of his career, it isn't surprising to find the rapper defiantly affirming the supremacy and vitality of his legacy. "Launched the greatest label in the history of rap/And for 24 years I carried it on my back," he proclaims on the Wagnerian "It's Time for War." Nor is it shocking that one of hip-hop's most emotive vocalists decries the current, relatively unexpressive state of the music during the Gamble & Huff–ish "Dear Hip-Hop." Exit is not preoccupied, necessarily, with these issues, but these two tracks, on which he most urgently presses these causes, bookend the 19-track disc.
To his credit, though, as opposed to bellyaching for the album's length, LL makes the case for his continued relevance by just getting to work and fashioning a varied, humorous CD deep with his trademark flourishes. For example, "American Girl" twists "California Girls" in an odd way: Over "Spirit of '76"–tempoed fife and drums (and bolstered by his own deft, lyrical syncopations), he celebrates the sexual vivacity of American women as though it were a profound outgrowth of the democratic experiment: "The King of England would have left us alone/If he saw Jessica Simpson eat a ice cream cone . . . I'll bet Thomas Jefferson would love BET." Yeah, I'll bet. Meanwhile, "Like a Radio" shows off the rapper's legendary salacious bent. Pushed by Ryan Leslie's twittery, slinky beats and an extended FM-station metaphor, the cut turns broadcast lingo into cunnilingus, and on-air boilerplates like "I'd like to make a request," "pump it again," and "heavy rotation" into dripping double entendres.
How should hip-hop age? On Exit 13, LL—no longer a skinny, be-Kangoled 16-year-old, but a 40-year-old father—suggests that, in any field, the trick is accepting your elder-statesman status but never sleeping on it. That you've been around a long time merely means the jacks who wanna eat your lunch have increased exponentially. Like L, you still gotta get out there and do the damn thing.