Picture by Nigel D.
While all the talk and coverage this week will be on Kanye, another rapper delivered an album this week too.
Theater of the Mind is clever, diverse, creative, and different. Hip-Hop really needs to begin assessing Ludacris’ contribution to the music and his dopeness on the mic.
Ludacris= Top 5…I think so…
“If you can make me think and make me laugh that is the sign of someone truly talented.”
We often associate a comment like this with great comics, actors/actresses, and other entertainers. But in Hip-Hop how often do we solicit this desire in our rappers?
While plays on words are staples of great literary works and verbal performances, it has a particular place in Hip-Hop culture. We often playfully attempt to “diss,” “rag,” “snap,” “get at,” or “cut” on one another. Whether in person or on wax, an MC battle clearly exhibits this quality.
But while in our culture we overwhelmingly have an affinity for humor (Katt Williams, Mike Epps)—and even more so for humorous social commentary (Chris Rock, Richard Pryor, Aaron McGruder, Dave Chappelle)—we don’t like it so much in Hip-Hop. Is it our constant need to legitimize the toughness, roughness, and harshness that we often call “real“? Does it undermine the street-cred mandate, “ski mask way” mentality that is almost mandatory for all rappers?
If Ludacris had a long rap sheet, two jail bids, and was a self-professed former D-boy, would his position in Hip-Hop be different? Would he be a more respected MC?
Is Luda a respected MC?
All Hip-Hop artists have to fit into a box: neo-soul, commercial, gangsta, thug, back-packer…the list goes on. It’s to the point where we don’t know what to do with people who don’t fit into one of the boxes.
Or rather we do know what to do with it…we call it “WACK!” right away.
The videos, singles, and popular conception of Ludacris often put him in this category. With album titles like “Chicken-N-Beer” and “Incognegro;” and videos like “Rollout,” “Stand Up,” and from the new album “One More Drink,” we can see why many casual fans see his funny, joking side. This becomes the popular conception of Luda.
Images over-power music. Stereotypes over-power words.
No question Ludacris had partially created and marketed this image—and to his financial benefit: endorsements, several multi-platinum albums, a budding acting career, world-wide recognition. But it hasn’t produced respect for him as an MC. He’s not one of the first names you think of when “Top-5” or “Hottest in the Game” list are made.
But Ludacris’ music is not a clown performing in a circle.
His music is an example of a trait we use to distinguish great rappers: lyricism- a fluidity with words; punchlines filled with analogies, metaphors, and symbolism; the ability to explain common ideas in an uncommon, yet appropriate way. His work is often the exercise of a masterful, skilled performer who displays the qualities we find in great artist: witty, charming, daring, skillful.
Theater of the Mind puts on display all these traits. The album shows an attempt by Ludacris to create a conceptual element to his work. The album’s diversity of content stands out compared to today’s standard, mainstream Rap releases (underground artists like Devin the Dude can be an example of this refreshing approach as well). There’s drunken hook-ups with women, boasts of rap superiority, “day-in-the-life” stories, lyrical expositions on what is an “MC”, and ode’s to Hip-Hop. It is a diversity steeped in a variety of subject matter, a variety of styles, and a variety in the supporting cast (ranging from T-Pain, to Chris Rock, to Spike Lee).
This is the album’s strength: it takes us into the “mind” of Hip-Hop; a wide spectrum of the culture is shown threw participants, topics, and music. In a traditional Hip-Hop manner songs like “Undisputed,” “Everybody Hates Chris,” “Last of a Dying Breed,” and “Do the Right Thing” affirm Luda’s prowess on the mic: punchlines, wit, and creativity are as present as they have ever been in his rhymes.
Indeed Ludacris challenges himself conceptually while still staying true to the daring quality that has made him who he is. But this is no overnight occurrence. A closer look and listen to his last album, Release Therapy, shows similar characteristics and maturity. It was more than the hit “Runaway Love” (featuring Mary J. Blige); it was also about growing up a screw-up (“Grew Up a Screw Up” featuring Jeezy), remembering brothers in the pen (“Do Your Time” featuring Murder C, Beanie Siegal, and Pimp C), going to war with god, (“War with God”), and examining your “Freedom to Preach.”
His body of work has proven Ludacris to be Top 5 in the game today.
The challenge is getting people to not just see this:
But to also see this: