Cultural bellwethers are almost always false alarms. Way back in 2001, with the South taking over rap at the same maddeningly slow pace as it had five years before and will no doubt five years from now, the two guest verses in Missy Elliott's "One Minute Man" seemed to signal a changing of the guard. In contrast to Jay-Z's clipped wit (professional, snide, prematurely ejaculatory), Ludacris lusted with an eager warmth; his comic couplets suggested a third way between technique-obsessed NYC rhyming and Atlanta strip-club shoutalong. Three years later, even retirement can't shut Jay up; wordsmithery in the Dirty-Dirty has narrowed to a choice of whether to bark orders ass- or tit-ward, and Ludacris has proven a frustrating case for rap fans who acknowledge the existence of the female orgasm.
The formula seemed simple enough: Act as though the pussy that's spread before you is connected to a human brain and damn if your own personality don't start to sparkle. But though Luda's lip-smacking mindfuckery showed up the sensitive-thug pose of Fitty or Fabolous as rote opportunism, this awareness also made his sometime willingness to treat women like designer jizz rags that much more contemptible. Cris reached his conceptual peak and artistic nadir in "Splash Waterfalls," its girlie-sung hook alternating between "Make love to me" and "Fuck me" in order to project his own sexual confusion back on the ladies. Then again, for all its frisky tongue action, even "What's Your Fantasy?" expressed only a slightly more imaginative sense of role-play than your typical installment of HBO's Real Sex.
Red Light District begins with Luda in do-the-impossible mode. On "Number One Spot" he cracks the last Austin Powers joke you ever need to hear (desirous women ask him to "get in my belly" à la Fat Bastard), and forgoes ridiculing a certain Fox newsman's urge to fa-fa-fa-falafel you from your head to your toes in favor of a quick says-it-all "Hi, Mr. O'Reilly." But though the giddy fight song "Get Back" ("I came/I saw/I hit him right dead in the jaw") proves he's still got hits, the only future Ludacris points toward here is his personal financial forecastas brilliant as Daffy Duck when he brags "I'm worth a million gazillion fafillion dollars," as boring as a Billboard news brief when he details "offers on my sixth album for labels trying to sign me."
On Urban Legend, Luda's fellow Atlantan T.I. is no more a quipper than ever, with decent bootstraps braggadocio ("My daddy wan't a doctor and my mama wan't a lawyer/I ain't never had shit/Congratulations are in order") easily overshadowed by his limber and elastic delivery. A wide receiver in a field of crunk linebackers, T.I. busted out a year ago with "Rubber Band Man," nimbly riding a ginormous David Banner synth riff rather than tackling it manfully. Unfortunately, that hit earned him bigger guest stars for this go-round. In "Get Ya Shit Together" Scott Storch riffs a tired keyboard over some snare-impersonating handclaps and a Lil' Kim-impersonating Lil' Kim, while Nelly and the Neptunes really should attend to their own current creative difficulties instead of spreading 'em around.
Then again it's Swizz Beatz, at his most dazzlingly generic, whose nagging Jigga sample in "Bring Em Out" shows T.I. you don't have to one-up the greats when you can just loop them into doing your bidding. The rapper similarly gooses tradition by rhyming "There is none higher" with "Twenty-four inches on my rims and tires" for his Run-D.M.C.-biting "King of the South." But his regal pretensions are balanced by the admission of modesty "Prayin' for Help," directed toward You Know Who but maybe more applicable to the producers who do the real heavy lifting here: Sanchez Holmes, who tricks up an intricate horn fanfare on "ASAP," and DJ Toomp, who pulls off the same trick with flutes in "Motivation." As cultural bellwether, T.I.'s myth of inspired journeymen triumphing over geniuses and superstars may be short on flash. But it sure sounds like one hell of a false alarm.
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