When going down a list of Hip Hop's perennial underachievers, one name that comes up in many lists is Ludacris [click to read]. Much like fellow emcee Nas, it's not that his catalogue is riddled with awful or below-average albums; rather, it's the fact that his albums usually fail to live up to the considerable talent he possesses. Ludacris was able to shrug off most of these criticisms with 2006's Release Therapy, as the characteristically lighthearted rapper who was generally known more for his rhyming ability rather than lyrical content explored more serious subject matter. Aiming to maintain his momentum, Luda brings us to the Theater of the Mind.
As is customary, Ludacris launches Theater of the Mind into the stratosphere with one of his incendiary intros. Keeping the adrenaline pumping, Luda heads straight into "Undisputed" [click to read], which co-stars boxer Floyd Mayweather [click to read] (on this album, there are only co-stars - no features). Over blaring horns that scream triumph, Ludacris lets everyone know that he is the undisputed champ - of Hip Hop, of landing women, and just about everything else. You can think of this as Theater of the Mind's version of "Grew Up a Screw Up." Former foe T.I. [click to read] co-stars on the tough-talking "Wish You Would" [click to read] which ends up being a nice slab of southern grime. He doesn't particularly shine on the record, but considering that Luda made his bread and butter by annihilating anyone on the same song as him, you could say Tip holds his own.
The now-customary feature man T-Pain [click to read] joins the cast on "One More Drink," which is one of the more surprising tracks on the album. Instead of going the bland club banger route, 'Cris and T-Pain concoct a hilarious ode to beer goggles, with T-Pain delivering a hook that is both infectious and priceless. It is because of this song that "What them Girls Like" is such a tremendous disappointment. Looking back at Ludacris' collection of club-friendly singles, this one ranks near the bottom with "Money Maker," as both are of the same generic vein. There's no doubt that Luda can put forth a more inspired rhyming effort on a single ("What's Your Fantasy" and "Stand Up" come to mind).
Like any movie, Theater of the Mind would benefit from the best cast possible. Take "I Do it for Hip Hop" [click to read], for example. Joined by living legends Nas and Jay-Z [click to read], it's very much apparent that Luda feeds off his supporting cast - and since Hov and Esco are no slouches, Ludacris does his damndest to put forth his greatest effort on the track, outshining both of his NY brethren in the process. Looking at the other end of the spectrum, "Southern Gangsta" (co-starring Rick Ross) and "Nasty Girl" (co-starring Plies [click to read]) fall flat. Whether Luda wants to refer to his newest project as a film or album, why sully it with such mediocre acts? Fortunately, 'Cris exercises good judgment more often than not, as Lil Wayne [click to read], Game [click to read] and Common [click to read] all log in worthwhile efforts. And although he's not given a co-starring credit, DJ Premier provides an expectedly excellent beat, complete with his trademark scratches on "MVP" [click to read] - though, someone should tell Luda that he's not the first southern rapper on a Primo beat (or the second, or the third...).
The biggest gripe about Ludacris' projects is generally quality control, and Theater of the Mind is no exception. However, it is evident that with each release, he's getting closer and closer becoming a complete master of his craft. This is the first album of Luda's in which the listener really gets the sense that he has arrived, full of conviction, with the wisdom of a veteran coupled with the wit that has been a staple in his music over the years. Theater of the Mind may not be the classic Ludacris claims it to be, but when Hip Hop fans look back upon his legacy, this album will be the one that dissuades any notion that he is incapable of present a final product which truly speaks to his abilities.