Does anyone get genuinely excited about new records from artists like Ludacris anymore? Is there still buzz created about what might be contained therein? Like, “I wonder what he’s gonna rhyme about this time—that we’ve never heard a rapper like him before, I hope!” Or, “Ooh, do you think it’ll have some songs about his cars and sales figures?” Or, “I can’t wait to hear a club song that features a poorly sung hook by Pharrell!” Or, “How long will it be before the bedroom song co-starring an obligatory DTP hook boy turns up?” (Answer: track seven, and it’s somebody named Bobby Valentino).
I don’t mean to single out Ludacris; I believe doing so would reveal me to be a… (flipping encyclopedia pages)... hater. Frankly, of all the big-ticket MCs on the planet I’d much rather spin his discs than almost anyone else’s; at least he might bring the funny. But after four records, hearing the phrase “Ludacris has a new album” is well less a cause for actual anticipation than a autofired obligation, a low-risk low-reward investment, like a Coke, or a sitcom, or a sack of pizza rolls. You could say that about hundreds of major-label rappers, but I’ve only got space for one.
Release Therapy is being pitched as Luda’s Growth Record, the one that illustrates his evolution as a rapper… and a person. This is a miserable idea whose poor conception is outmatched by its lame execution (“I can replace an Escalade, but I can’t replace my mama,” Ludacris rhymes on “Freedom of Preach”; feel free to steal that for Mom’s next birthday card). I want to hear Ludacris opine on Iraq like I want to hear the Killers ripping off Born in the U.S.A.; I’d much rather hear him be funny, which he is much of the time (and Release Therapygets some good lines, like, “I’m pumping out albums like Rev Run is pumping out children”). Ludacris’ legacy will likely involve his comic gifts: “Ho”, “Hip Hop Quotables”, “Number One Spot”, with its so-goofy-it-works Austin Powers obsession. It’ll be less about the useless, numbing obsession with diamonds and paper, the ones anonymous enough to have come from anywhere.
Besides, for a guy pitching himself as all grown-up (and who poses thoughtfully, eyes downcast, on the cover), Ludacris spends half the record hedging his bets. “Grew Up a Screw Up” sports an uninspired chopped-and-screwed chorus. “Money Maker” has Pharrell. And the sure-to-be-next single is “Woozy” a strongly forgettable ballad with the typically seamy R. Kelly, who is apparently never going on trial. Here, you can enjoy Kelly’s ostensibly serious assertion that “I always wanted to go down on a girl that reminds me of me.” It’d help if she reminded him of him at age 11, but whatever.
As for the record’s serious second half, it’s not much more than a silly-bordering-on-laughable attempt at stretching. The titles that might indicate something, anything, off the beaten track end up being false trailers: “War With God” ends up being about studio gangstas. “Do Your Time” tells Luda’s incarcerated friends to stay strong in the clink, all well-well-well-well-well-well-well-worn territory. Even the good-hearted attempts at social conscience come and go without much resonance.
For a guy as clever as Ludacris, this is an bewilderingly fun-free record, largely because of the dulling lack of personality in his beats, a cardinal sin for someone with his bank account, and the insta-dulling obsession with same. Who gives a shit? No, seriously, who gives a shit? How does someone spend 35 minutes reporting on the size and shininess of his fleet of vehicles, then step into the shoes of a broke blue-collar Joe Punchclock? “Rich people are way too fly,” Apparently Broke Ludacris reports in “Slap”, confoundingly oblivious to the fact that he’s been saying arguing just that for 45 minutes. So when he gets briefly political on the same track (general idea: Bush is bad), and genuinely socially conscious on “Runaway Love”, the net effect is, at best, jarring enough to require a neck brace. At worst, it seems like a practical joke.
Which is the problem with Release Therapy. When Luda gets all serious, you want old Luda back; when old Luda’s back, you find yourself trying to calculate in your head how much longer you have to listen to it. Actually, the problem is that “Release” may be a club record; it may be the one in which he stretches the boundaries of music, as he fairly hilariously claims in “Girls Gone Wild”. The problem is, neither is likely to result in your caring for more than a few minutes. Or however long it takes for a Coke to go flat.