Chris Bridges could be forgiven for coasting at this point in his career. It would be perfectly understandable if he put it on cruise control, content to cash checks from his blossoming acting career and occasionally dropping a hot 16 on someone else’s song.
It’s to Ludacris’ credit, then, that he sounds as committed to his craft as ever on his latest full length release, Theater of the Mind. As the title implies, it’s heavily influenced in theme and execution by his current Hollywood reality, but without the pandering that one might expect to come with it.
To be sure, there are some fluffy, radio and club-friendly cuts. The lead single, the Chris Brown-aided “What Them Girls Like,” is one, as is “One More Drink,” a salute to beer goggles that features a T-Pain chorus and an undeniably catchy backdrop cooked up by The Trackmasters.
But Luda’s biggest strength is his versatility, whether it’s the speed, tone or content of his rhymes, so he sounds equally at home on Theater’s grimier numbers – like when he’s joined by Rick Ross and Playaz Circle to compare street bona fides on “Southern Gangsta.” Does he really “keep some heat and a couple of rounds” like he suggests on “Call Up the Homies?” Maybe, maybe not, but he sounds credible when he says it.
It helps that previous successes allow him to assemble one of the finest collections of major label talent around to serve as guest stars, including T.I., Common, The Game and the man of the hour, Lil Wayne. The beatmakers are no slouches either, with Scott Storch, Swizz Beatz and Darkchild all among the producers contributing tracks.
While he doesn’t quite come through on the original concept of establishing a unique mood on every song, Ludacris definitely comes thundering down the stretch run of the album with plenty of pure lyricism. He boasts of being “the first Southern rapper on a Primo beat” (Editor’s note: Devin The Dude “Doobie Ashtray”. Checkmate, Luda.) on “MVP,” talks motivation with New York kings Nas and Jay-Z on “I Do It for Hip Hop” and revisits the cautionary ground of “Runaway Love” on “Do the Right Thing.”
If it’s possible to sound hungry after going platinum 10-plus times, Luda pulls it off as he’s trading urgent rhymes with Weezy on “Last of a Dying Breed.” And in case you think he forgot the target he’s occasionally had on his back, his final verse includes these lines: “They say O’Reilly don’t like him/Oprah won’t invite him/the President denounced him/no one will announce him./Controversial lyrics like I’m crying for help/very talented, but I should be ashamed of myself.”
Truth is, Ludacris shouldn’t be feeling any shame. Theater of the Mind may not reinvent the rap game, but if every artist who tasted a little fame and fortune kept putting as much effort into it as he does here, there wouldn’t need to be a discussion about reinventing it at all. - Nick Tylwalk
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