Let’s get to this quick, skipping the intro that I’ve tried and failed to write three times so far. Ludacris makes shallow music. But it’s fun, because he picks good beats, he’s funny at times, and his rhymes are usually ok. But, besides his humor, there isn’t anything distinctive about his persona. So I can’t put my finger on what he does so well, what thing about him justifies his 17-year music career.
Sure, the singles are always hot, but is that really it? That question ran repeatedly through my head while playing Ludaversal, his first album in five years. I realized that I’d subconsciously given this guy a lyrical pass based on a surprisingly good verse on The Beautiful Mixtape. A verse which, in hindsight, was only so good because I’d come to it expecting so little from the guy who slept-walked through Southern Hospitality.
“Bullet-proof Buddy Lee jeans”?!? That’s the end of the verse that I thought was so good? What the fluck was I thinking?!?
I’d bet that most people’s memories of Ludacris’ music feature the hooks, or a funny line from a verse, or a moment from the video, not the phantom lyricism that he brags on but never displays. I’d also bet that these memories are missing the experience of personal sharing, of getting to know the man, Chris Bridges, as he honestly reveals himself. Even after so many singles and the few albums I’ve dived into, I have no idea of what his personality is or what it might be like to spend time with him. Ludaversal feels impersonal, sterile, and manufactured. It’s an album that attempts to please every taste and so has no identity, just like its host. Every song with a feature (almost half of the too-many 18) feels like something he licensed from that person, as opposed to a collaboration. I don’t feel like Ludacris is in any of these songs.
Case in point, Ocean Bridges, about his late, alcoholic father, has a vaguely sad name, a remorseful guitar sample, and Monica on the hook. But Ludacris sounds the same as on the fun songs. His rhymes are just as bad, the punchlines miss just as much, and the delivery didn’t pull any emotion from me but boredom, if that counts. This is paint-by-numbers art-for-crying’s sake, designed to elicit tears from the audience yet it seems that none were present during its creation.
Toeing the line between funny guy and street thug has similarly emotionless results. Call Ya Bluff is about people who talk tough about him on records but not in person, but the reasons to listen are the booming beat and the sing-along hook, not the weak and vaguely threatening punchlines. Beast Mode suffers from the same problems, plus it doesn’t even have a fun hook. It’s one long verse, as if what anyone wants from Ludacris is more rapping, especially when it has plenty of pieces like this one:
You niggas think you hard, I think you better come harder
I leave rappers confused like will.i.am barber
Ah, fuckin’ with Luda’s not a great look
A verse’ll make your fans unfriend you on Facebook
Whoever wants more rapping from Luda is liable to get slapped. Either I’m getting more picky or his skills are dramatically worse now than years ago. Just about every song has cringe-moments where I’m amazed that these lines made it from his brain to paper, let alone all the way to the microphone.
He does gets at least two songs right, but I could easily improve both by letting the features completely take over. Not Long, with Usher’s voice meshing perfectly with the nostalgic soul instrumental, and Come and See Me, with K.R.I.T.’s always-perfect fast flows, both suffer from Ludacris’ insistence on rapping on his songs. Bless his heart, he tried to emulate K.RI.T.’s intricate rhyming and speed but no verse ever came close.
Making songs for everyone is a terrible idea for most rappers, and, commercial success be damned, Ludacris is most rappers. He’s managed to survive off the strength of his singles, but failed to grow musically. Instead of being and showing one person, he’s been a chameleon for his whole career, making music that’s fun for a few weeks but ultimately extremely forgettable. At this point, I don’t even care who he is anymore.