Saturday, November 29, 2008

Theater of the Absurd: Discussing Ludacris’ Theater of the Mind

Rap addicts and hip hop heads have often opined that the one true flaw that Ludacris possesses is his inability to construct a seamless album, a piece of work that is solid from start to finish. We can blame Luda himself, but I tend to aim some of my distrust towards record labels’ constrains. Def Jam... well, their hip hop department has been slippin’. For far too long. I’ll refer you to their earlier releases. Putting that aside, Theater of the Mind is yet another action-packed offering by the ATL Renaissance Man -- but it’s far from perfect.

In philosophy and postmodern literature, the Theatre of the Absurd – which deals heavily with the idea(s) of existentialism – refers to the absurdity of human existence. As The Free Dictionary puts it, it is a “form of drama... employing disjointed, repetitious, and meaningless dialogue, purposeless and confusing situations, and plots that lack realistic or logical development.” How ironically fitting it is that Luda would splatter his various emotions and personas across the cover of his new album! But it’s the music itself that demonstrates the cyclical (and absurd) nature of Ludacris’ musical career and present album, Theater of the Mind.

If that sounds like a movie you wouldn’t watch twice, then what else could you say about an album with the same description?The “inspiration” for Luda’s new album was undoubtedly his side-career as an actor in films. Apparently each track on Theater of the Mind was intended to be played as a movie. We’ve heard this schtick before; Luda’s not the first to pull this kind of “concept album” scheme. But how would this possibly make for a good album? We don’t need a whole bunch of disjointed – here I go with the existentialism again – and confusing situations. The problem with this album is that it’s too disjointed. It starts out with great promise, and it ends on a high-note, but the middle is bland and worthless. If that sounds like a movie you wouldn’t watch twice, then what else could you say about an album with the same description? With exception to the Chris Rock-assisted track “Everybody Hates Chris”, tracks 4 through 10 are fodder for your recycle bin. That’s half the album already! Talk about filler!

There are some funny moments in this gray area of the disc however, such as a lyric on “Southern Gangsta” in which Rick Ross kicks some ol’ Chuck D rhymery: “I got a letter from the government the other day/ I opened and read it, it said we were hustlers/”. For some strange reason, that line made me LOL. Seriously. Could it be the fact that Ricky Rawls is in way over his head thinking he can rap like Mistachuck? Perhaps. But to be honest, I always envisioned Rick’s “letter from the government” as a paycheck. I digress.

I can’t bash this album too much, because there are definitely some bangers that’ll be making their rounds on several year-end lists, such as “Undisputed” featuring Floyd “Money” Mayweather. Over an Edwin Starr-sampling masterpiece concocted by Don Cannon, Luda provides several quotables like this one: “Got a pocket full of G's - and the ‘Inconvenient Truth’/ Is that the ozone is bad cause I been smokin’ all the trees/ The globe is warmin’ up when we fire up the blunt/ And put it in the air like Evil Knievel stunts/”. Or how ‘bout Luda’s much-anticipated collabo with beatsmith extraordinaire DJ Premier on “MVP”? Here Premo laces ‘cris up with his patented jingle anthem beats (weird way to describe it, right?), bringing out the inner-most emcee within Chris Bridges. It should be noted though that Luda erroneously lists himself as “the first southern rapper on a Premo beat”. A handful of southern emcees such as Devin the Dude and Luda’s fellow ATLien Cee-Lo have all done their thang over Premo production. Call that a hip hop fact check. I’m like the Dan Abrams of this rap shit.

Another great track on the album, and certainly one of the highlights of ’08, is the much-talked-about collaboration between Ludacris and his fellow Def Jam colleagues Nas and Jay-Z. “I Do it for Hip Hop” is an ode to the art form and culture we all love. Ah, if only Ludacris hadn’t spit the following five words on a Bun B track (“Trill Recognize Trill”) back in 2005: “I do it for myself’(!). Kinda makes this whole “I do it for hip hop” stunt a bit redundant, huh? Maybe I’m being a bit too tough though? Hmm... Nah.

I wasn’t too pleased with Jay’s verse either. He starts off by (mis-)quoting MC Shan (“hip hop... out in the park”), which is kinda cool considering his former rival Nas comes from the same “Bridge” as Shan. Next up, he discusses how hip hop saved him through his hustler travails. Finally, he thanks all the influential emcees that set him on his path to stardom such as Kool Herc and Grandmaster Flash. Cool. But then he swipes his former mentor Jaz-O: “Shout out to... Jaz’ bum-ass”. Call me old fashioned, but isn’t this a textbook example of biting the hand that feeds you. I’ve never understood this beef and I probably never will. All I’m sayin’ is that Jaz deserves a little more respect than that. But I digress (once again). All in all, what could have been a hip hop classic was ruined by Jay’s lack of class. As (almost) always, Nas reigns supreme as the humble emcee who really does it for hip hop. I still think Lupe Fiasco’s “Hip Hop Saved My Life” trumps this effort by Luda & Co.

It’s hilarious... to see the same business model being applied with an expectation of receiving different results. Isn’t that the definition of insanity?Overall, Theater of the Mind provides some quality for your MP3 player, but it’s a waste of plastic (or wax) to buy as a whole album. It’s a sad day in hip hop when some of the grizzliest emcees in the game (I would put Luda on that list, hands down) are sworn to a filler-fest of pseudo-pop collaborations and the sub-par R&B/rap mixture that major labels have created in order to achieve cross-over appeal (ahem... money). But it’s really bizarre when you think about it, because it seems to have an opposite effect in the scheme of things. Just look at the facts: Ludacris’ first two major-label albums (Back for the First Time and Word of Mouf) had tracks like “What’s Your Fantasy”, “Southern Hospitality”, “Welcome to Atlanta”, “Area Codes”, “Ho”, “Move Bitch”, “Saturday (Oooh Oooh)”, “Rollout (My Business” and many more! That’s a mighty strong showing right there. The evidence? I still bump those tracks on the regular. Surprise, surprise, those albums went triple platinum. Everything else Luda’s put out has gone lower and lower down the drain (Chicken-n-Beer and The Red Light District – 2x platinum; Release Therapy – 1x platinum). Go figure. Back to my original thesis revolving around existentialism and repetition of the mundane: it’s hilarious – tragicomic in fact(!) – to see the same business model being applied with an expectation of receiving different results. Isn’t that the definition of insanity?

The funny thing about all of this fuckery is that Theater of the Mind is actually a tad-bit better than Ludacris’ 2006 effort Release Therapy. Let’s take a trip down the not-so-distant memory lane of yesteryear: Release Therapy won a Grammy for rap album of the year, or some shit. Wow! If Luda doubles up with Theater of the Mind then Nietzsche was truly right: “God is dead”! Is it just me, or is mainstream hip hop starting to feel like No Exit?