Tuesday, March 31, 2015

album review: 'ludaversal' by ludacris

I didn't think this album would ever be released.

And can you blame me for thinking that? There have been a lot of rappers from the era of the early-to-mid 2000s that didn't last, and for a long time, I thought I'd have to include Ludacris in that list, one of the more iconic southern MCs to explode in that period. And if you go back through the Billboard Hot 100 charts of that time, it can be a little startling to remember how huge he was. Exploding out with an elastic flow, buckets of expressive charisma, solid enough beats and bombast, a great sense of humour, and a lightness of tone that gave his material a strong pop sensibility, it seemed like in the early 2000s he could do no wrong.

Then came Release Therapy in 2006, his shot at more mature subject matter, to prove he could step outside the box, but going back to it almost a decade later, it feels both like an overreach in terms of its concept and yet underweight in terms of insight. And while there are great moments on that record, it was wildly inconsistent in terms of tone and execution, and it wasn't helped by being overloaded with guest stars, which has always been a problem for Ludacris especially when they're nowhere near his level of talent or personality. And the problems continued onto his next two records, Theater of the Mind underperforming and Battle of the Sexes just being embarrassing. Not only did it seem like Ludacris wasn't trying as hard, but he was getting outshone in terms of personality by his guest stars - which should never happen on a Ludacris record! Granted, it didn't help matters that Ludacris frequently found himself as a guest rapper on songs he should never have touched - when you're collaborating with Justin Bieber and Enrique Iglesias, you need to take a step back.

Which takes us to Ludaversal. Recorded over four years, initially announced for 2012 and now pushed back to 2015, I had a lot of reason to believe this album would never get released. As much as I'm a fan of the guy - and I am - Ludacris has been out of the industry for a while, and any leftover buzz from that talent show he was on with Kesha, Brad Paisley, and Josh Groban is gone too. Yeah, he had an EP titled Burning Bridges that was released late in 2014, but was anyone going to care? I did not want to go through another mess like what happened with 50 Cent last year and Animal Ambition - Ludacris has always been one of my favourite southern MCs, I did not want to see him fall off. So with all of those concerns in mind, I checked out Ludaversal - is it good?

Folks, I have to be honest - I had an absolute blast when listening through this record. Talk about a comeback that does exactly what it should: reestablish why we loved the main performer in the first place, show exactly how he fits in with the new paradigm, and finally show off what new directions he might be planning to go. Ludacris accomplishes all of these things on Ludaversal, and in a nice change of pace, actually might be one of his strongest albums. It's lightweight, breezy, and maintains a pretty sharp balance between the fun moments and points where Ludacris show himself capable of being more serious. In other words... hell, I'll say it, this album is goddamn great, it knows exactly what it is and owns it, and I'll have no trouble recommending this.

But before I start, I want to clear up some old business first: I've tended to get a lot of flack when I've ripped on artists like, say, Future or Rae Sremmurd or even Big Sean and YG when they've made their brand of dumb party music, mostly because I've not been all that impressed with the MC's skill or presence. And Ludacris is one of the biggest reasons why: quite simply, the guy has a great voice for hip-hop, expressive yet capable of subtlety, able to get fiery and energetic and yet play things more laid back, and his flow has always been one of his strongest assets. And from the introduction of this album onward, Ludacris seems set on proving it, kicking into double time, showing off multiple flows and showing off exactly how dextrous of a rapper as he is and who actually seems to give a shit about his comeback kicking ass. More importantly, he does it all while being a strong technical lyricist who has the charisma to make it all look easy. He doesn't take shortcuts with forced rhymes or repeating unnecessary phrases or stuttering to fill up space - sure, most of the time his material is just as sleazy and hyperbolic, but the technical craftsmanship is so much better. Coupled with the fact that he's got a great sense of humour and strong comedic chops, is there any surprise why I like the guy on the microphone and why other rappers trying to follow in a similar vein of content have disappointed me?

And in a really nice change of pace for Ludacris - and one I did not expect - this album keeps the majority of the focus on him with limited guest stars, which you need when you're re-establishing an artist's character and unique presence. The only guest rapper on this album is Big K.R.I.T. on 'Come And See Me', and he and Ludacris play off each other pretty well - sure, I'm not always the biggest fan of car-focused southern hip-hop and I'm fairly sure Big K.R.I.T. already did this same song better on Cadilactica, but the track's still solid enough. Outside of that, the only other artists besides Ludacris on this album are for his hooks, and both Miguel and Monica turn in damn good performances. If I'm being honest, as much as I'm a big fan of the guy, it did feel like Usher could have done a little better on 'Not Long', and it's not until the later choruses did I feel he was really invested as much as he should.

Granted, the production on that track does seem a little outside of Usher's usual comfort zone, which takes us to the area that'll probably draw the most criticism from me on this album: instrumentation and production. Now it'd be easy to say that most of this album sounds as if Ludacris never really left his comfort zone in terms of southern hip-hop, but Ludacris' production on this album showed a fair bit more variety than I expected. Sure, you get the bass-and-reverb-heavy 'Grass Is Always Greener', the wheedling guitars of 'Beast Mode', and the explosive and honestly overmixed crunk banger 'Get Lit' that all feel like they could have been pulled straight from the mid-2000s, but there's a surprising amount of variety. David Banner contributes a slick guitar-driven trap beat for the intro, the eerie keyboard flutter set against an echoing clap and guitar flourish from Illmind on 'Charge It To The Rap Game', and 'This Has Been My World' feels like a beat that could have been given to T.I. with the gleaming keyboard line and female backing chorus that out of nowhere ends with a pretty well-written spoken word poem as the synths escalate into a pretty damn great shimmering, spacey outro courtesy of Just Blaze that is a fantastic way to end the album. But what surprised me were the more soulful touches that actually added more grit and texture to Ludacris' traditionally clean production. The first hint of it came on the 'Lyrical Healing' interlude, but then it came up against with the warm scratchy piano of 'Good Lovin', the brassy soul and textured percussion of 'Not Long' - not typically an instrumental Usher would sing against, and not an instrumental that you'd expect coming from David Guetta of all people - and most shockingly was 'Ocean Skies', which interpolated a Billy Talent guitar sample that breaks into Monica's soulful delivery and probably could have afforded to be a little heavier across the chorus. That's really the only thing I can nitpick instrumentally on this record - Ludacris is at his best when his production can match his personality, and some of the beats on this album do feel a little underweight, the most egregious example being on his collaboration with Big K.R.I.T. over Mike Will Made It's decent but melodically underwhelming production - why Big K.R.I.T. didn't produce something himself, I'll never know.

But now we get to the tricky business: the content. And here's the thing: like on Release Therapy, Ludacris is playing both the more conscious and serious angle while also supplying his usual brand of hyper-detailed smack talk and debauchery, characterized at its dumbest moment by the 'Viagra' sketch in the middle of the album that feels like a holdover from the 2000s and not a good one. But going beyond that, much of the content on this album is pretty simple in terms of its focus, if improved by the fact that Ludacris is in his late-30s and has picked up some real maturity along the way. What's interesting is that he doesn't waste much time reminiscing on the time while he was gone, instead focusing more on being grateful for what he has and the nonsense he had to go through to get there. He deals with unfulfilled expectations from both himself and his fans on 'Grass Is Always Greener', failed relationships on 'Good Lovin', the come-up story of 'Not Long', and the nastier elements behind it on 'Charge It To The Rap Game'. That song is one of the few moments where Ludacris does get political, speaking in much blunter terms about a racist system that paradoxically loves ignorant rap, but also castigating rappers who play into that system - like himself, as he's not afraid to admit the same mistakes he made on that track. In fact, the big shock for me is that Ludacris actually took steps towards getting personal on this album with 'Ocean Skies', a song for his father who died from complications with diabetes and alcoholism - which placed Ludacris in a rough position, because who was he to tell his father not to drink the liquor he himself promoted? But really, if we're looking for a loose theme of the album, it's gratitude - for as much as Ludacris brags and is happy to be where he is, he makes it clear others can get there too. It's not so much rapacious greed as it is being happy to have made it as far as he has, and that ends up makes him a lot more likeable.

So in the end... look, guys, you don't need to tell me that it's not a particularly deep album - it's not, it's lightweight southern rap that I'm frankly stunned hasn't made it to the radio yet. And I can see some not being able to buy into the more serious moments on this album simply because of all of the hedonism Ludacris puts to the forefront on earlier tracks. And while I can see that, Ludacris plays both sides well enough that I'd argue he makes the balance works. Coupled with great personality, surprisingly varied and interesting production even if it is pretty lightweight, strong guest stars that still gave Ludacris the main spotlight, and more great punchlines than I could possibly cram into this review, for me this is an 8/10 and definitely a recommendation. Folks, hip-hop has been on a hot streak of great records this year from Joey Bada$$, Lupe Fiasco, Doomtree, Earl Sweatshirt, and of course Kendrick Lamar, but while those albums often dealt with heavier subject matter, there's a place for balance and lighthearted fun and Ludacris brought it. Seriously, check this out, and Luda, it's great to see you back.

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