Ludacris has made a career out of walking a line between offensive and infectious. And, with 10 years now under his belt, the charmingly crass MC continues to make songs that are just barely 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' beat for "How Low," for example, he knew he had a winner on his hands.
"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 his 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 pitting him against female MCs including 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 become even more of a boys' club in recent years. Major-label albums from women are few and far between; Missy Elliot's Block Party, for example, has been delayed for years, while Lil Kim hasn't had a new one in a half-decade.
But the fact that the project is spearheaded by someone as, shall we say, unchivalrous as Ludacris makes it feel strange. Few rappers are as lewd as he, after all, and indeed, on Battle of the Sexes he makes no effort to ratchet down the raunch. "Hey Ho" describes the catcalls heard by girls leaving Luda's crib as they proceed down the walk of shame, while "Sex Room" is an ode to his home's, uh, bone zone. And, on "I Know You Got a Man," featured rapper Flo Rida attempts to seduce his love interest by suggesting they "conversate, conjugate, constipate," which doesn't sound at all appealing.
The main difference between this and the legions of other sexed-up rap and R&B albums is that the females are more or less equal contributors. Monica explains her feelings on 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 that he didn't enlist his female guests to redefine hip-hop gender roles, however, and they often feel like the entertainment who has been hired for the party, rather than the party-goers 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 like child abuse. That album appears to have alienated some of his fans, however, and sold worse than Ludacris albums usually do.
And so, beginning with his last album, Theater of the Mind, and now with Battle of the Sexes, Ludacris has returned to focusing on the randy rhymes and sweaty syllables that made him famous. That's probably why "How Low" and the rest feel slightly slimy; we know Luda is capable of doing something more inventive.
But perhaps, since he's just aiming for a good time, we shouldn't ask for more. After all, it seems to be what he does best.
"The shows are more like a party," he explains of his tour. "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'll earn a free pass.