Ludacris has made a career of walking the fine line between offensive and infectious. For ten years, the charmingly crass MC has made songs that are just substantive enough for the critics, and just catchy enough for radio.
He's got it down to a science at this point: When he heard Toronto producer T-Minus's beat for "How Low," for example, Ludacris knew it was a winner.
"Not to sound cocky or anything, but I knew exactly what it was going to do before I put it out," he says, speaking from a stop on tour opening for Black Eyed Peas. "I knew it was a sound that we're missing in hip-hop right now, and that's what I try to do — keep things new and reinvent."
"How Low" is the lead single off his seventh album, Battle of the Sexes, a concept piece that pits him against female MCs such as Lil Kim, Shawnna, Eve, Trina, and Nicki Minaj.
"I have songs about women, songs talking to women, and songs where women are talking back to me, so you get the male and the female perspective on many different issues," he says.
It's a fairly novel concept, as hip-hop has always been more of a boys' club. Major-label albums from women are few and far between; Missy Elliot's Block Party, for example, has been delayed for years, and Lil Kim hasn't dropped anything in half a decade.
But the fact that the project is spearheaded by someone as, shall we say, unchivalrous as Ludacris feels strange. Few rappers are as lewd, and on Battle of the Sexes he makes no effort to ratchet down the raunch. "Hey Ho" describes catcalls received by girls leaving Luda's crib and embarking on a walk of shame, while "Sex Room" is an ode to his home's, uh, bone zone. And, on "I Know You Got a Man," guest rapper Flo Rida attempts to seduce a love interest by suggesting they "conversate, conjugate, constipate," none of which sounds appealing.
The main difference between this and other legions of sexed-up rap and R&B albums, is that females are more or less equal contributors. Monica explains her feelings regarding an addictive-yet-unsatisfying relationship in "Can't Live With You," while Lil Kim makes the case that women shouldn't be afraid of casual sex on "Hey Ho." (Not exactly a novel concept from her, but still.) On "Feelin' So Sexy," Shawnna initiates a booty call, insisting that, "My body's so tight, I'm needing you to stretch me."
"It's kind of a male-dominated industry," Ludacris notes. "And one of the reasons I wanted to do the album was to get more of a female voice out there."
It's clear he didn't enlist his female guests to redefine hip-hop gender roles, however. They often feel like entertainment hired for the party, rather than partygoers themselves. In his defense, he already tried to break the mold once, on his 2006 album Release Therapy, which featured a darker and more serious tone and delved into issues such as child abuse. It appears to have alienated some of his fans, however, and sold less copies than previous albums.
And so, beginning with his last album, Theater of the Mind, and now Battle of the Sexes, Ludacris has refocused on the randy rhymes and sweaty syllables that made him famous. But that's why tracks such as "How Low" feel slightly slimy: We know Luda is capable of creating something more inventive.
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Then again, perhaps he's just aiming for a good time, and we shouldn't ask for more of the album. After all, it seems to reflect what he does best.
"The shows are more like a party," he explains of his live performances. "It's just raw energy."
Surely his fans won't disagree. As always, when Luda delivers his lines with a confident wink and a mischievous smile, he earns a free pass.