Ludacris’ music has become increasingly thug while his career becomes more and more Hollywood and, well, suburban. Venturing into the occasional silver screen role, more or less playing himself, the Atlanta-based rapper often portrays a gun-toting hoodlum, much different from his public persona. And if ever Ludacris could be called thug or street — not really — now, by his own admission, his own animated flows have removed him from the world he seems to intent on (re)connecting with (“‘Cause Luda was set for life after three LPs”). It’s odd then, that Theater of the Mind, his sixth mainstream release, is harder than any of his previous records, almost completely lacking the schizophrenic punch lines and hyperactive personality that made Ludacris so captivating in the first place.
A record that takes itself so seriously, both thematically and sonically, Theater of the Mind doesn’t just feature guest spots, it has co-stars. It’s this kind of eye-brow-raising stunt that makes it difficult to take this record without a grain of salt. And even when Luda cools off and displays his self-deprecating charm and sense of humor (“Everybody Hates Chris”), you get the sense that Luda is just making fun of his detractors — few of them that there are — rather than mocking himself as he seemed to on his previous releases.
The T.I.-featured, Dirty South archetype “Wish You Would” might be the hardest song Ludacris has ever done and effectively sets the tone for the rest of Theater of the Mind. While most of the rhymes are about Ludacris’ fleet of cars and their respective interiors, the production on the track sounds more akin to a Young Jeezy thug anthem. Meanwhile, T.I.’s lines about praying for forgiveness from a casual Friday murder (“In church on Sunday morning praying ’bout what happened Friday”) and white collar conspiracy completely negate the would-be casual Ludacris bars and make him sound more like a drug kingpin than white-picket-friendly movie star he is.
The majority of Theater of the Mind‘s tracklist reads a little bit like a DJ Khaled record: more guest spots (co-stars, d’oh) than the record can really handle. “Southern Gangsta” is similarly wanna-be thug, featuring verses from Rick Ross among other no names (Ross’ verse starting with one of his funniest lines to date, “I got a letter from the government, the other day / I opened it, read it, said we were hustlas”). LA Blood the Game, also among a group of no name MCs, makes an appearance on “Call Up the Homies”, a track that is about the Game taking Luda on a tour through Los Angeles and their subsequent murders.
And as if Luda’s self-imposed seriousness wasn’t already awkward enough, enter “I Do It for Hip Hop”, which is punctuated by verses by Nas and Jay-Z … Ludacris, Nas, and Jay-Z. One of these things is not like the other. The breakbeat and scratch-laden throwback production makes Luda sound tragically out of place while Nas’ verse calling out studio thugs is the best he’s turned out in years, and HOVA’s bars on growing up with hip hop are in line with his more retrospective fare.
The one true standout on Theater of the Mind is the breakout single “What Them Girls”, due mostly to Chris Brown and the Malice sound-alike Sean Garrett absolutely torching the chorus. All the while Ludacris’ lady-lovin’ swagger finally shines through the way it did on the records that made him the star he is.
Theater of the Mind, ultimately, is a difficult record to absorb. It’s not so much Ludacris’ persona that’s changed and yet this album tries to almost completely change his sound. So his punch lines don’t really land the way they used to and his spastic outbursts don’t shine on past releases — imagine Missy Elliot rapping over Terror Squad beats. So maybe this is Luda cashing it in, the title is peculiar and I’m sure there’s something Freudian in it somewhere. But for a guy who’s been set for life after three LPs, he sure seems to love making records.