When the house lights go down to start Ludacris’ Theater of the Mind, an ensemble cast takes to the stage and delivers a performance that is mostly comedic, sometimes sharp, sometimes funky, and often very entertaining. Unfortunately, Luda’s sixth studio album lacks a certain punch and finds the artist often forcing himself into sharp corners that don’t quite fit.
At his best, Ludacris is a great rapper for creating sweltering club bangers focused around clipped beats and his Southern drawl. His contributions to pop music have been significant and have even scooped him some Grammy Awards. But on a deeper level, Ludacris struggles to escape the alcove of party rapper. Theater of the Mind doesn’t help matters.
That’s not to say that this isn’t an enjoyable album, but beyond the quips and beats there really isn’t a whole lot here.
As per usual, a whole array of producers is used. DJ Premier, Scott Storch, Trackmasters, and more all have their hands on tracks. And the litany of guest stars is colossal, drawing comparisons to a Paul Haggis flick. Jay-Z, Nas, Common, Lil Wayne, T-Pain, T.I., The Game, Jamie Foxx, and others are given spots to shine as “co-stars” in this Theater of the Mind.
The hitch is that all of the guest stars, producers, and sound clips from Chris Rock and Spike Lee don’t help Ludacris emerge into the spotlight.
After the intro warning us that “they’re about to start the movie,” Luda rolls into “Undisputed.” The cut features garrulous hype work from boxer Floyd Mayweather and includes a stunningly obsolete reference to the Pacers punch-up at the Palace of Auburn Hills in 2004.
Fortunately, Luda is sharper on most of the other cuts. The self-deprecatingly wicked “Everybody Hates Chris” draws up one of the best lines on the record when he spits “still counting, still climbing the charts, and rappers still talking shit like they was rhyming in farts.” And “One More Drink," featuring T-Pain, tells a funny story about boozing too much, regrets, and taking drunken pictures on a camera phone.
“Last of a Dying Breed” includes the best rapper of 2008, Lil Wayne, and bounces with a hard, speckled beat. Nas and Jay-Z show up on “I Do It For Hip Hop,” pulling together one of the album’s best cuts with quick verses and old school scratches.
The usual “message” cut closes out the record, with “Do the Right Thing” filling the spot. Common is a nice choice for co-conspirator on the track, but Luda’s work leaves a lot to be desired and the song lacks thrust and impact.
And that’s really the basic problem with Theater of the Mind; Ludacris has trouble as a serious rapper. Whether it’s message tracks or thug cuts like the featureless “Wish You Would” or the daft “Call Up the Homies, he simply never casts a big enough shadow to be taken for an intimidating or shrewd performer.
As pure entertainment, then, Ludacris’ record works. As anything else, this is one Theater troupe that should probably leave it to the pros.