LL Cool J holds court with Kings of the Mic

JON BREAM | Updated 5/29/2013

Rapper-turned-TV star LL Cool J leads a tour of hip-hop veterans, including Public Enemy and Ice Cube, into Target Center Thursday.

LL Cool J helping launch the Doritos "For the Bold" campaign earlier this year.
Darren Abate

LL Cool J is back. Finally.

Five years after releasing his last disc and more than 15 years since his last big concert tour, the veteran rapper has returned in a big way — a new star-studded album, “Authentic,” featuring Snoop Dogg, Eddie Van Halen and Brad Paisley, and an arena tour coming to Target Center on Thursday.

Kings of the Mic features Public Enemy, Ice Cube and De La Soul along with LL — all enduring old-school hip-hop names who date back to (yikes!) the 1980s.

“I wanted to be on tour with people that I grew up with and my fans grew up with so that it could be a fun show where all the fans want to see all the acts,” LL said. “It just felt right.”

Thanks to his new stature as co-star of “NCIS: Los Angeles” and host of the Grammys, he’s sort of the king of kings on this 29-city trek. At least, when it comes to star power.

This will be his first full-fledged arena tour since teaming with R. Kelly in 1996. His album’s opening track, “Bath Salt,” suggests some trepidation.

“Honestly, I was scared to come back,” he raps. “It was ugly not knowing how the game would react.”

“It’s been a long time,” LL admitted with his thick Long Island accent during a recent phone conversation. “The idea of putting out music is a sensitive and scary thing for an artist when you haven’t put music out in five years and the whole entire business and landscape has changed.”

Album sales have dropped dramatically. Old-school rappers aren’t heard on the radio. Major labels aren’t always major players. So LL went indie with “Authentic.”

“From a hip-hop standpoint, if you’re going to put something out and you’re not going to jump on the trends and play follow the leader, you’re kinda in a weird spot,” he said. “But that’s what I chose to do. I chose to be myself, make what I like and experiment. I feel good about it.”

Grammys-like guest list

The album credits look like a Grammys lineup. Other guests include Travis Barker of Blink-182, Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine, Charlie Wilson of the Gap Band, Chuck D of Public Enemy, Earth Wind & Fire, Bootsy Collins, Seal and such new faces as the retro-soul outfit Fitz & the Tantrums and electro rocker Z-Trip.

Did LL sell out and go Hollywood?

“What would be a reason for me not to want to work with the greatest musicians in the world?” he said. “That’s what the guy who started my career did. Rick Rubin went on to work with the most established acts [including Neil Diamond, Tom Petty, Aerosmith, Metallica and Johnny Cash]. How can an artist sell out being creative? The flip side of that coin is ‘He never grew up, he’s just repeating himself.’ You’re never going to be able to please everybody. That’s why it’s art.”

For the song “We’re the Greatest,” he wanted Van Halen, whom he called the “G.O.A.T. of guitars,” which, in hip-hop jargon, means “greatest of all time.”

“I made that song thinking about being in the gym working out or being at a sporting event, winning. It’s all about taking your life to the next level and being on your A-game and being on top of the world,” LL said. “Eddie heard the demo and liked it. I wrote the whole thing as we sat there together.”

LL hit it off with country superstar Paisley a couple of years ago at the iHeartRadio Festival in Las Vegas. This year, they made guest appearances on each other’s albums.

Country fans might be surprised by Paisley’s soulful, rangy turn on “Live for You,” one of those classic LL pop-rap love songs.

“I didn’t want to do anything gimmicky,” LL said. “Most people when they see his name on the track, they expect to hear banjos and me trying to pretend to be a country rap. They think it’s going to be a hot mess. I just wanted to get Brad to stretch a little bit and step outside what he does.”

“Accidental Racist,” their duet on Paisley’s CD, created quite a stir. It’s the story of how West Virginia-raised Paisley believes in Southern pride but that doesn’t necessarily make him a racist while New York-reared LL is suspicious but tolerant, rapping “RIP Robert E. Lee but I’ve gotta thank Abraham Lincoln for freeing me, know what I mean.”

Both artists have caught heat from commentators.

“I was surprised people would think I was trivializing slavery,” LL said. “Knowing my history and background, that was an odd conclusion for people to draw about me. But I understand music is like the Rorschach test. People hear what they want to hear. That being said, it feels good to make a song that’s that important, that could raise conversation on that level in America and actually be a touchstone for the nerve, consciousness and zeitgeist of the whole country. I think history will be kind to us on that one.”

Ladies Love Cool James

To people who know LL only from “NCIS,” he has a back story full of hit records.

LL Cool J — it stands for Ladies Love Cool James — made his first record for Def Jam at 17 in 1985. With his explosive voice, he broke through with such street-wise hits as “I Can’t Live Without My Radio” and “Rock Them Bells.” He later became known for mainstream-friendly lovers’ raps as “I Need Love” (1987) and “Hey Lover” with Boyz II Men (1995), which earned him his second Grammy.

Everyone knows him as LL, but what does his wife of 18 years call him?

“Todd,” said the man born James Todd Smith.

His signature look became Kangol hats — in every style imaginable. How many hats does he have?

“Not as many as I used to ’cause I never get to wear them on ‘NCIS,’ ” he said with a hearty laugh. “I gave a lot of that stuff away.”

He joined “NCIS: Los Angeles” in 2009. Filming the TV show involves 12- to 16-hour days. But the buff LL still manages to make it to the gym four times a week.

“The gym is any time before or after that [filming schedule],” he said. “It’s not easy but you pay the cost to go to that next level.”

Although he’s proud of his acting and writing — he’s done several films, and penned four books — LL, 45, isn’t considering putting down the mic.

How old is too old to rap?

“I don’t think you can be too old to love music,” he said. “This is just a performing art. Not unlike painting or sculpture. I think people run into problems when they try to be a teenager forever. I’ve never said I wanted to be a teenager forever.”