Ludacris seemingly has it all: five platinum discs, Best Rap Album and Best Song Grammy wins (for his 2006 LP, Release Therapy, and its lead single, “Moneymaker”), a boutique record label (Disturbing Tha Peace), a social-networking site (wemix.com), and movie credits. But what Luda wants most is a spot on rap’s ever-changing top five list. With his Hollywood star rising (he has two films, RocknRolla and Max Payne, being released within weeks of his latest LP), though, the public’s perception is that he’s too caught up getting that movie money to care about bars. Quite the contrary. Luda is focused. So focused that he draws on his newfound movie-star career as the basis for his art-themed sixth album, Theater of the Mind, which bills its guests not as features, but as co-stars.
As far as concept albums go, Theater of the Mind has lofty goals, but, for the most part, Luda delivers by bringing aboard a solid cast of artists and personalities. First, there’s the comedic “Everybody Hates Chris,” complete with hilarious commentary by Chris Rock, which sets Luda up to steal the show with his humorous punch lines (“Still counting, still climbing the charts/Rappers still talking shit like they was rhyming in farts”). Then Spike Lee intros “Do the Right Thing,” and the DTP captain takes hip-hop artists to task, urging his peers to stop selling negativity. But rappers are walking contradictions, so Luda naturally comes back with the haunting “Southern Gangsta”—a play on BET’s “American Gangster” series, narrated by Ving Rhames—where ’Cris professes, “I got gangsters that’ll rearrange your whole face/And put you on ice, now that’s a cold case.” Expanding on his performance-art concept, Luda enters the ring, literally, with Floyd Mayweather in his corner, on “Undisputed,” where the Pretty Boy coaches ’Cris on how to maneuver around his opponents in the rap game.
There are many moments, however, when the album’s theme doesn’t stick. Songs like the Swizz Beatz–produced “Nasty Girl,” with its lush pianos and bright synths, and the T-Pain–assisted “One More Drink” seem to exist on their own accord and don’t have much to do with theater, film or television. Elsewhere, he’s just straight reaching—“What Them Girls Like,” for instance, where, despite taking a cue from 2000’s Mel Gibson chick flick What Women Want, there’s no real solid connection established between the film and the actual song. “Wish You Would” is equally disconnected, but with onetime sparring partner T.I. on board, it’s enough to overlook any thematic shortcomings as they verbally taunt their haters. The same goes for “MVP,” which surprisingly finds DJ Premier supplying his signature dose of East Coast boom-bap drums and a scratched hook for Luda to lyrically black out on: “He goin’ down in history ’cause he don’t sleep/And he the first Southern rapper on a Premo beat!” The wordplay culminates on “Last of a Dying Breed.” Guest starring Lil Wayne, the track is a robust operatic affair, complete with epic trumpets and chunky kicks, and finds Ludacris staking his claim as one of the greats with the album’s most resounding rhyme couplet, “Top five, damn right, but really it just hit me/That three of your top five is scared to fuck wit’ me.”
Successfully pulling off a cohesive album concept is a tall order—especially in an era when radio singles and ringtone jingles are needed to help move units. While Ludacris doesn’t exactly stay in character the entire time, he does achieve his overall goal of positioning himself one step closer to that coveted title of G.O.A.T. —PAUL CANTOR