Theater of the Mind
Disturbing the Peace/Def Jam
3 Out of 5 Stars
The artistic integrity of Chris “Ludacris” Bridges’s work is open to debate, but from an objective perspective, there’s no denying that hip-hop’s renaissance man was born to entertain. He peppers his verses with stand-up-esque punch lines and cleverly risqué metaphors. Early in his career, when making records no longer satisfied him, he brought well-seasoned charisma to the big screen in a relatively successful foray into film, occasionally checking up on the music world and dropping an album to remind everyone he could still spit with the best.
Now, Luda aims to bring his newly formed cinematic insight back to hip hop with the film-themed Theater of the Mind. Within the conceptual glamour of Theater, featured rappers aren’t just guests, but co-stars. Ving Rhames narrates a track a la Isaac Hayes in the “Shaft” theme, and a brief appearance by director Spike Lee lends the album a vague sense of directorial supervision.
But despite the superficial attempts at maintaining the film motif, the only common thread holding the tracks together is Luda’s lyrical wit and unmistakable dirty-South flow. The album’s artwork — which sees various incarnations of Ludacris expressing varying emotions — no doubt alludes to his engagement in an array of hip-hop personas throughout the record. Depending on the track, he’s a boastful, self-aware industry titan, a moralizing-for-the-kids street preacher or a thugged-out, ho-slaying gangster. The versatility needed to take on such varied identities, not to mention the inherent contradiction of assuming all these roles on the same album, would spell disaster for just about any other emcee. But Luda pulls it off with convincing ease, implanting his homespun humor and dead-on similes to make the multiple personalities mesh perfectly.
The list of “co-stars” on Theater reads like the attendance sheet of some high council of hip hop: Nas, Jay-Z, Lil Wayne, the Game, T.I. and Common all contribute verses. There’s the obligatory T-Pain track “One More Drink,” in which Luda revels in the beautifying effect alcohol has on the more cosmetically disadvantaged. He ultimately decides “People are too picky these days.” On “I Do It for Hip Hop,” Luda proves himself a hip-hop purist, spitting a heartfelt verse over a brilliant J Dilla-inspired beat.
Considering the legendary guest list, it’s funny that the album’s most powerful track finds Ludacris without lyrical support. On “MVP,” he sounds as raw and zealous as he was on his debut, announcing “I’m still hungry as the day I began.” DJ Premier’s beat is a monster, conjuring up the gritty streetwise production that made his work on Illmatic the stuff of legends.
Still, not everything on Theater works. Throwaway songs pollute the track list, like the uninspired “Wish You Would” and the tediously predictable “Nasty Girl.” First single “What Them Girls Like” sounds like a cheap Pharrell knock-off. These are minor qualms, though, and just like any cinematic experience, a few bad scenes don’t drastically compromise big-picture entertainment. Which is, for all intents and purposes, Luda’s true forte.