Ludacris has released an album in 2015 that sounds like it’s from 2004, and this is a good thing. There’s no way to begin talking about Ludacris really. Ludacris has always been omnipresent and invisible, everywhere and nowhere, always straddling the line between Serious Rapper Who Critics Could Love and party bro. Never quite a has been, and never the sole artist on everyone’s lips. Prolific and pervasive, credited with mainstreaming southern rap, a Grammy award winner with eight albums to date, and an actor in Crash and Fast and Furious, and yet, a question mark hangs; who is Ludacris, who is Ludacris really, and how do we talk about him. Asinine questions, if Ludacris wasn’t dealing with them (almost embarrassingly head on for 2015) on Ludaversal.
Which is all to say that I don’t always understand Ludacris, or, if I do, and when I do, I don’t know how to quantify that comprehension in words, and Ludacris feels the same way, about himself, and about me, probably. Ludaversal shows a Ludacris who knows himself deeply, and doesn’t, a Ludacris who knows how to quantify his experience and himself in words, eloquently and lyrically, and then doesn’t. The end result of Ludaversal is something that teeters on the edge of an endearing, abrasive sincerity and a kind of scary confusion, and by that I mean the end result of Ludaversal is the year 2004.
See, it’s easy to dismiss Ludacris as a joke(r), it’s been a sentiment attached to him in the past (unfounded, see: eight albums and several Grammys) because Ludacris talks shit, Ludacris is good at talking shit, the first line on Ludaversal is a shit talk, “Ain’t nobody fuckin’ with me when it come to getting lyrical…” and it’s electric, every line tumbles out like a punch, perfectly executed and natural, because really, words exist only to be sucked into Ludacris’s mind and spit out in a new grammar breathlessly. “They say Luda why you rapping so fast? / I’m like bitch, why you listen too slow?” It feels personal, a stomp in your face angry tirade at no one in particular, and also, at that one person who ignored you once at that one party.
The first three songs off Ludaversal are all personal, really, and there’s no pause, no breath, we are pulled from the elevated challenge of “Ludaversal Intro” right into “Grass is Always Greener,” pushed into “Last year I got the Ferrari that I always wanted / Drove it crazy got sick of it had to trade,” pushed into “I got hits, start trippin’ I wasn’t underground / Got underground start trippin’ I need hits.” Which, like, listen: Has anything ever been more about anxiety? Presumably yes, but also, the last line of the song is “we’ve been conditioned to think,” and I’ve tossed and turned about that, because, right? You can rhyme line after line of lyric about anxiety and unhappiness, write slanted emotions on unlined paper, you can drive on the freeway at midnight with windows down and the wind blowing through your hair, and still feel trapped in your head, you can communicate and communicate and communicate, and live and live and live, and work and work and work, and still arrive at the same conclusion Ludacris did: we’ve been conditioned to think. And there hasn’t been a more interesting way to say I wish I would stop thinking sometimes, then with the heavy sigh of acceptance and resolved relief of “Grass is Always Greener.” We’ve been conditioned to think, full stop.
The last of the Ludaversal’s Holy Trinity is another classic Ludacris shit talk, “Call Ya Bluff,” is one of the album’s singles and is objectively Special and Important because it is Ludacris’s 2015 version of “Get Back.” The “Call Ya Bluff” video sees Ludacris fighting the camera, punching it, flipping it off, once again going after everyone and no one, and one specific person too. Except this time, it’s all slightly tilted–a shit talk, belted out in a small, run down house that cuts abruptly to an office in the middle of the second verse, and it sees Ludacris tilting back, rapping and blowing cigar smoke at you. It’s heavy handed, the visual callback to the past, and the grand solemnity of the present. Mostly though, this song is Special and Important because Ludacris warns, “You think it’s funny cause it’s sunny where your house is / Bitch, I’ll put my muddy ass boots where your couch is.”
Ludaversal also gives 2015 a Miguel song, or, half a Miguel song, but also really, a Miguel song. “Good Lovin” is not my favorite song off the album, mostly at my own fault, my inability to weave through regret, or my inability to admit regret, to contend with mistakes I know I’m making as I make them, but making them anyway. “Good Lovin” is all of that, it is following through with the wrong when you know it’s wrong, it is admitting the wrong, but still feeling entitled to the Right, whichever, whatever it may be. It’s cheating on your partner, and facing that seeming injustice you inflicted, while simultaneously recognizing that the world is unfair anyway, and you’re not the sole executor of injustice, “I got a empty hole in my chest / How do I fill it? Somebody give a prescription / I guess I gotta learn to live with regrets.”
The album peaks at “Ocean Skies,” a moving catalog of Chris Bridges loving his abusive and alcoholic father, missing his abusive and alcoholic father, forgiving and excusing the pain his father’s life wrought for the pain his father’s absence has crystallized, “waking up, crying in the night, hearing arguments / Hands off my momma, somehow I knew he was the cause of it…He had the biggest heart / but also liver damage” “Ocean Skies” is sad, and only sad, and it’s threaded with the hope that keeps sadness alive, “I feel so hollow inside / Gotta keep my eyes on the prize / Cause I’m steady wishing you were here / To see the goals that I plan to reach.” It’s emotional, it’s ambitious, it’s moody.
Ludaversal amplifies a recent trend that’s described every major rap release in the last year or so as “moody.” This description is fair, because moodiness is interchangeability, moodiness is the breathing that happens inside the sullen, inside the melancholy. Moodiness is to be human really, because humanity is the continued communication of a fractured, oscillating self, propelled by a swinging beat and narrated by the sadness and bravery of survival. So it’s surprising, I think, a little bit, that after decades of exceptionally “moody” rap albums, we’ve just now turned the corner, in the last five years, and have collectively decided that rap albums are as equally moody as [white man with a guitar], that rap albums are not just exclusively Angry or Aggressive, that rap, in fact, is the moodiest of all genre’s, that the form itself is moody. Anger and aggression in rap have been commodified, extracted from the place they come from and framed so as to exist as images that ignore and dismiss the moodiness, the interchangeability that they speak to. Which isn’t to say anything really, except that it’s curious, that decades of moody rap has existed and it’s only just now being recognized as such.
Still, this is a review of Ludaversal, and not an examination or indictment of the word moody and the way it is or is not applied to rap, except that it does relate to Ludaversal because Ludaversal is moody, it is as moody and radical as any rap album before it, and as moody and radical as any rap album after it, but it does manage to operates outside of the cultural phenom of the Moody Rap Album. Ludaversal is not the rap album that will produce long thinkpieces by white men, because it’s not made to produce long thinkpieces by white men, it’s made, as Luda himself said, so that “I can be back in the barbershops.” It’s a rap album from 2004 that lives and breathes 2015 and keeps its eyes on tomorrow.
Ludaversal is a good listen. Even if it’s not your thing, it’s a good listen.