How One Line Derailed Ludacris’ Rap Career And How He Might Get It Back On Track

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“I fill her up… balloons!”

Those five words were all it took to completely derail the career trajectory of one of the most prominent MCs of the 2000s.

Now, don’t get it twisted. Ludacris still holds a spot as one of the most respected rappers to enter the game in the late ’90s, and I doubt he’s crying himself to sleep at night in his mansion basically made of the money he’s earned as a member of the insanely lucrative Fast And Furious ensemble. But somewhere along the way, the man affectionately known as Luda lost any of the cachet he wielded at the turn of the millennium as the performer of immensely enjoyable hits like “Move, Bitch,” “Number One Spot,” and “Roll Out.”

While it’s not unusual for rappers to experience that weird transition from “hitmaker” to “has-been” as they age, it is pretty rare that we can trace the exact moment of the fall-off so precisely to just one line in a career that spans thousands. And now that we live in an era where rappers can maintain musical relevancy long past their perceived expiration dates, even experience late-career rebirths like Luda’s rebranded onetime label-mate 2 Chainz (FKA Tity Boi), there’s no real reason to think he can’t make a comeback — after all, his skills haven’t exactly atrophied and his charisma is still world-class.

But the first step to fixing the problem is finding its root. So, how exactly did “balloons” cause the downfall of one of the biggest and best rappers in the game?

Let’s rewind to the summer of 2010. The latest craze in rap, which has seen all sorts of permutations from whisper flows to double-time speed rap, was the “pause flow.” Also known as the “hashtag flow,” this particular lyrical approach was coined in its current form by Big Sean on his Finally Famous Vol. 2 mixtape, on the song “Supa Dupa”:

“I am a supa, dupa troopa’
Used to the bottom… scuba
So I’m on the grind, skateboard or scooter
‘Til I am the king of my castle… Koopa”

Before long, it seemed every rapper was delving into the unique style. Drake adopted it for the first single from his debut album, Thank Me Later, and on his LeBron James documentary-leading “Forever,” Lil Wayne enthusiastically abused it all over No Ceilings, and Kanye West got into the act, albeit on a hook, for “Barry Bonds.”

Even Nicki Minaj, the guest feature on “My Chick Bad,” the song from which Luda’s offending line was taken, uses a similar punchline on the song itself. “It’s goin’ down… basement,” she crows midway through a verse that finds her comparing herself to both WNBA star Lisa Leslie and monster movie serial killer Freddy Krueger. Yet, Nicki emerged unscathed, her trajectory undented by the same lyrical foible that sent Luda’s into a tailspin.

The difference is in execution. There’s a very subtle twist that has to be applied to the usage of the “hashtag” flow, which isn’t very complicated and shouldn’t have been too difficult for Ludacris to figure out. It’s a basic simile-style rap punchline, with the word “like” removed, adding the pause for dramatic effect before the hammer falls, twisting the original clause into a pun. It’s why a basic flex like “it’s going down… basement,” sounds much less egregious. “It’s going down” gets a second meaning tacked on once the final word hit, making it an effective double entendre.

“I fill her up” doesn’t really have an existing slang meaning or anything that really works in context. “I fill her up like balloons,” would make no sense even without removing the “like” because what else do you do with balloons? You fill them up. It’s almost too logical. There’s no wordplay. There’s no twist. There’s no art.

And a rapper of Luda’s stature should have known that. In a catalog filled to the brim with effective and clever punchlines, there’s no reason whatsoever he should have made such a stumble. This is the moment when Ludacris lost all his cool and entered the realm of “out of touch dad trying to be cool.” It’s the sort of thing Phil Dunphy from Modern Family would say. It’s a “how do you do, fellow kids?” moment of epic proportions. In his rush to prove to the youth he was down with the new slang, he whiffed by completely misusing it, all at once aging himself and falling well short of the extremely high standard he’d established for himself.

Battle Of The Sexes and “My Chick Bad” came out in 2010. Ludacris hasn’t had a legitimate hit since.

That isn’t to say his discography went completely out the window. Ludaversal, his 2015 follow-up to Battle Of The Sexes, found the then-37-year-old rapper firmly back in his element lyrically, spitting quirky observations and high-velocity punchlines with abandon. It received generally favorable reviews from critics and performed relatively well commercially, but it seemed to mark the end of the reign for the one-time heir apparent to Atlanta’s rap crown.

Now, he’s preparing his ninth studio album, which he confirmed in a March 2017 interview with Complex. The announcement was followed by the release of a typically hilarious, irreverent music video for “Vitamin D,” but the CGI six-pack abs he gave himself in the video garnered a larger online response than the song itself.

I’m all the way in on Luda staging a comeback to the rap game, but the question remains: How can he regain his lost cool, especially as the game has seemingly moved on without him? The Atlanta hip-hop scene has given way to the traptastic sounds of Migos, Future, Young Thug, and Luda’s own former protege 2 Chainz, so earning his clout back would mean taking a few pointers from another underrated down South legend: Gucci Mane.

Like Gucci, Luda’s spent an extended amount of time away from the scene, so fans of the artists who grew up on his music may not know who he is. Gucci cleared that barrier by reaching out to and performing with his musical offspring. Where many older rappers may find it more personally satisfying to berate the youngsters, Guwop used his elder statesman appeal to lend some of his credibility to the up-and-comers, while gaining newfound appreciation from a younger set of fans. Ludacris can do the same by collaborating with above artists, as well as 21 Savage, Lil Yachty, or 6lack.

Luda may also want to consider that while his beat selection process in the 2000s made him an idiosyncratic standout, they also sound dated, very much a product of the time they were made. He may want to consider going against his usual instincts to work with the producers of the moment, something he seemingly avoided on albums like Chicken-N-Beer and The Red Light District. While he happily stocked one or two barn-burners from big names like Timbaland and Organized Noise, he was also quick to hand out placements to unknowns like Vudu, DK All Day, Heazy, and T-Storm.

While there’s no guarantee that collaborating with more modern hitmakers like Sonny Digital, Mike Will Made-It, or Metro Boomin will automatically translate to ears on his new music, it could certainly make it more palatable to a generation who actively seeks out their work. At least, more so than bizarre, mainstream cashouts like his recent collaboration with Carrie Underwood for that cheesy Super Bowl song. It would also allow him to distinguish himself in comparison to his younger competition by making it easier to compare his approach with theirs. Fans who enjoy the modern trap-focused beats of a 21 Savage or a Migos, but perhaps wish they were more lyrically-focused might find Luda the perfect antidote to so-called “mumble rap.”

Lastly, he could patch things up with 2 Chainz — which is a fraught suggestion, considering the history the two share. 2 Chainz says that he had to pay Luda $100K per album to cut ties with Disturbing The Peace, which could certainly have left things on a sour note between the two. However, considering the kickstarter in most rap comebacks has been one hot rapper reaching back to help another — see: Rick Ross boosting Wale or Kanye West giving Common a leg up with Be — Ludacris as beneficiary of 2 Chainz currently hot helping hand could do wonders for the onetime boss. Of course, it’s not super likely, depending on how much of a grudge Chainz bears against his former employer, but a verse on a Chainz project could provide ‘Cris the momentum he needs to break his downward trajectory.

The rap game is fickle and life, as they say, comes at you fast. Fans love to build up stars as much as they love to tear them down and in today’s hyper-accelerated online environment, it seems like the ammunition is provided for them to do so as quickly as the actual music. While some say lyrics don’t matter as much in rap music anymore, it’s still clear that mic skills are important — just look at the formidable success of lyricists like Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole. The trick, it seems, is finding the right delivery system, presentation, and, most importantly, timing to catch rap in one of its progressive waves.

There’s nothing we love as fans more than a redemption story. “First they love you, then they hate you, then they love you again,” as the lyric goes. We know what broke, now is the best time to fix it. Ludacris has been waiting for his chance, and now it seems like the time is right to wash away his one true creative faux pas and return to the top of the rap game where he belongs. If not, at least there’s always Fast And Furious 9.