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My junior year English teacher, a Cambridge-educated Ph.D., once told my British literature class that “Ludacris is a genius. He’s just a bit naughty.” Christopher Bridges, better known as Ludacris, seems to want to prove that statement very badly as he rhymes, swaggers, and even moralizes through his latest album “Theater of the Mind.”
“Theater” is a thematic album (though the theme behind it seems to be mood swings), with songs that “co-star” artists like Lil’ Wayne, Nas, Jay-Z, and T.I., as well as some more unexpected guests like Floyd Mayweather, Chris Rock, and Spike Lee. The first group of rappers adds flourishes of the usual gangsta rap fare throughout the disc, but it’s Lee’s influence that brings a certain depth to “Theater of the Mind.” While Ludacris’s claims to supremacy and boasts of sexual prowess on tracks like “Undisputed” or “What Them Girls Like” have been claimed by many others (including some of his collaborators on this album), the later tracks offer a more in-depth glance into the artist’s thought process.
In “I Do It for Hip Hop,” Luda sheds some light on the motivation behind his career: “Luda do it cause it’s art.” And in all honesty, Ludacris does seem to believe in the art of his rhymes and beats, though that’s not to say he’s outgrown gangsta rap. But sometimes, a little bit jarringly, he breaks out of the genre’s restrictive violence and sexuality and reaches for something deeper, as in the last track, “Do The Right Thang.” Here Luda turns against street life and goes down an avenue long embraced by co-star Common but eschewed by most gangsta rappers. “Wake up” is the message he sends to the hustlers and gold diggers, and it resonates surprisingly well, considering Luda’s past as hustler and hip-hop jester.
Ludacris is able to keep a sense of humor throughout his rhymes, however, so the listener’s always laughing with, rather than at, the artist. On the collaboration with Chris Rock, “Everybody Hates Chris,” Rock shoots off a routine satirizing Ludacris as “the only rapper that doesn’t bring a gun to the airport.” The rapper sings the rousing, repetitive chorus of “Fuck you, Luda,” which is more than enough to demonstrate Ludacris can still poke fun at himself.
Luda’s most brilliant moments are those metaphors that make you laugh out loud with their bizarre lewdness or popular culture references, such as when he promises to make you “wetter than Michael Phelps.”
Ludacris has always been one of the downright funniest hip-hop lyricists, and “One More Drink,” with an appearance from T-Pain, keeps the punchlines flowing.
“Theater of the Mind” seems to have a track for every facet of Luda’s persona. Luda works in comical rhymes, dance-ready beats, pugnacious boasts, and a sense of social conscience over the course of the record’s 14 tracks. But it seems this diversity simply muddles whatever message there may have been. Does Ludacris want people who “still ride the MARTA train” to hate him? Does he want his unique lyrical powers to be respected, as he and Weezy claim in “Last of a Dying Breed?” Or is the most important message Spike Lee’s: that everyone’s been “sleeping for too long?” Then again, perhaps this was just the sort of thought-provoking confusion Ludacris was aiming for in his “Theater of the Mind.”
—Reviewer Meredith S. Steuer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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