Take a second to think about the most popular names in late-`90s/early `00s hip-hop.
DMX? In jail.
Master P? Out of the business.
Puff Daddy? Raps scarcely.
Nelly? Last album bombed.
Big Pun? Unfortunately passed away.
Dr. Dre? Detox was supposed to be released in 2004.
Who’d have thought back in 2000 that, besides Jay-Z and Nas, Ludacris would be the most consistent name in hip-hop? Luda has proven all doubters wrong, and with the release of Theater of the Mind, his sixth studio album, he’s proving that longevity isn’t a possibility -- it’s a certainty.
Atlanta’s favorite son has always impressed with a mix of wit and charisma that gives his songs a larger-than-life feel. But it’s not as if ‘Cris needs to rely on presence alone; his clear, authoritative delivery gives every bar a life of its own.
And Theater of the Mind kicks off with a track that proves just that. “Undisputed” re-establishes Ludacris as a man at the top of his profession. The drum-heavy beat is prototypically southern, and Luda’s bombastic flow works to a tee in how his punchlines come across. After a quick intro from Floyd Mayweather (yes, that Floyd Mayweather) notice is served as to just who is the center of attention: "Back to put rappers on one knee like they bout to run 100 meter dash / Bow down to greatness, before I get pissed and run up in the stands like the Indiana Pacers." While the individual raps sound bigger than ever, Ludacris had grand ambitions for the album as a whole.
In an interview prior to Theater’s release, Luda told an interviewer that he wanted every song on the album to be “an event.”
Frankly, no event on the album is bigger than “Wish You Would,” a song featuring two of southern rap’s kingpins. Only -- until the recently squashed beef -- these kingpins have been far from fond of each other. Differences aside now, Ludacris and fellow Atlantian T.I. team up to trade bars on a slow but busy beat that places emphasis on every single word. Luda enlists the help of several prominent East Coast rappers on the album, but none (literally) bigger than Florida boss Rick Ross. His trademark simple-but-powerful delivery is the centerpiece of “Southern Gangsta,” and his subject matter is still anchored by the coke cartel persona that have made Port of Miami and Trilla so popular: "Had a Lexus at 18, go picture that / Got a Chevy with pictures on it from pitchin’ crack / Bitch I know Haitians, we speak in Creole / Bitch I’m a d-boy, still slingin’ kilos."
Stepping back from his comfort zone for a bit, ‘Cris, the Game and newcomer Willie Northpole ride on the G-Funk-influenced have-your-friends-back anthem “Call Up the Homies,” with spectacular results. The drum samples bump in all the right places and a cascading melody accents the trio’s respective flows. Later on, Common accompanies Ludacris on “Do the Right Thing,” a swirling, jazz-influenced track that the Chi-town native feels right at home on.
Even with all the guest stars on the album, with all of the big production and cunning punchlines, Ludacris closes the album with the reassurance that what matters is the music itself. “I Did It for Hip-Hop” is a musical platform for Ludacris, Nas and Jay-Z to proclaim their undying devotion to the genre that made them. Luda does so with a genuine introspection ("But I don’t do it for the money, I do it from the heart / I’ll do it with the beatbox, I did it from the start / I’ll do it for the DJs, I’ll do it for the charts / The Van Gogh flow, Luda do it ‘cause it’s art") and Nas does it with braggadocio ("It's just like rap, some will buzz some will attack, compromising their own life in fact / 16 years since my first 16, pardon the rest of my niggas, but I’m the best whoever did it") but the result is the same -- an all-star callaboration that cements Theater of the Mind as one of 2008’s best.
Just as it cements Ludacris as one of hip-hop’s best.