By Steve Weinstein
By Bryan Bierman
By Lindsey Rhoades
By Chaz Kangas
By Ben Westhoff and Sarah Purkrabek
By Jena Ardell
By Jesse Sendejas Jr.
By Katherine Turman
Ludacris wants to be taken seriously. Never mind his goofy hairstyles, his 'hos in different area codes, or his work in 2 Fast 2 Furious. Now he's a clean-cut Grammy and SAG Award winner who's acted alongside heavyweights like Terrence Howard and Mark Wahlberg. And, boy, has he networked: The artist more recently known as Chris Bridges's sixth album boasts appearances (or, as lamely dubbed in the liner notes, co-starring roles) by retired boxers (Floyd Mayweather), movie directors (Spike Lee), actors (Ving Rhames), actor/comedians (Chris Rock), and actor/comedian/r&b singers (Jamie Foxx). Looks like someone got himself an IMDb Pro subscription.
In recent interviews, Ludacris has insisted that Theater of the Mind has a "cinematic" feel to it. It doesn't. Yelling "Lights! Camera! Action!" on the intro doesn't cut it. Neither does having the guy who played Marsellus Wallace narrate "Southern Gangsta," which is merely a synth-burbling paint-by-numbers exercise in tough talk featuring Playaz Circle and Rick Ross (who, based on The Smoking Gun's reports, is probably the most convincing thespian on this album).
Really, Theater has little to do with Luda's new career—it's about protecting the legacy he built at his old one. "Six albums later, you'll deposit every verse/Till your memory bank give me the credit I deserve/Top 5, damn right, but really it just hit me/That three of your top 5 is scared to fuck with me," he boasts on "Last of a Dying Breed." So, what to do? Invite living members of that "Top 5" and beyond onto the album and try to outrap them. Showdowns with Lil Wayne, Nas, and former rival T.I. end in a push; our host is victorious against Common, the Game, and Jay-Z. But the results aren't necessarily celebratory. As a consequence of his preoccupation with acting and "lyricism," Luda neglects to do what he does best: make fun music. There's no "Get Back" or "Stand Up" here, let alone a "Southern Hospitality." Here, every attempted club song—"One More Drink," "What Them Girls Like," "Nasty Girl"—is forced, strangely detached, and uninspiring. Like a lousy Marky Mark monologue.