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It’s not too far-fetched, in retrospect, to call Ludacris this year’s unofficial Super Bowl rapper. Not just because sports and sex rank dead even on the former scholastic athlete’s pleasure scale (why else would he want to get it on at the 50-yard line during a Falcons game?), because he lent his voice to PlayStation’s John Madden 2000, or because sales of his debut, Back for the First Time, hit a month-long peak on January 28 (72,000 units that week, according to Soundscan, climbing from 57,000 the first week of the month). Or because his breakout single “What’s Your Fantasy” could be heard booming from every other stretch limo in downtown Tampa in the days before the game.
It’s because Ludacris understands the art of the sale, which was why he fit in with the scores of thinly disguised hucksters that hover around every Big Game. Pop music has always put the old-fashioned hard sell to good use—for every unknown artist complaining about the industry tango, there are 10 that’ll tell him to go home, get his game straight, and come back when he’s got it right. On Back for the First Time (originally released independently as Incognegro), the radio voice-over vet makes the short jump from hawking for Atlanta’s Hot 97.5 to hawking for himself. His rapid-fire delivery make him a Dirty South answer to Crazy Eddie (or Michael Buffer, to extend the sports metaphor): artist and pitchman rolled into one.
And if Back is, essentially, an extended promo spot, it’s a pretty good one. Like advertisers, who save their best ideas for très-pricey Super Bowl spots, Ludacris has crammed his CD with an almost overwhelming stream of kooky one-liners, clever rhymes, and deft metaphors. By the time the last track peters out, you’re left feeling that something dope just ran over you; you’re just not sure what it was.
Partly responsible for that effect are the backing tracks: a collection of glossy bass bumps and needling hi-hat beats. It’s serviceably brutal party-disc stuff, with just enough variations between tracks to avoid being completely monochromatic (though the kissing-cousin intros to “Get Off Me” and “What’s Your Fantasy” might cause one to argue that point). Principal producer Shondre shows a penchant for urgent bass/sample bleats (“Stick ‘Em Up,” “U Got a Problem?”) and designer string patches (“Ho,” “What’s Your Fantasy”). The guest producers—Organized Noize, Jermaine Dupri, the Neptunes—contribute tapestries that are less about aesthetic departure than maintaining momentum. Organized’s rolling “Game Got Switched” takes the ball from “U Got a Problem?” and dishes it off to “1st and 10.” Dupri’s “Get Off Me” is a long gain before the freestyle lark “Mouthing Off”; then the Neptunes’ “Southern Hospitality” sparks a long drive to the winning score—the subterranean, Timbaland-produced “Phat Rabbit” (spelled “Fat Rabbit” when Ludacris rapped it back on Tim’s Bio).
Ludacris’s subject matter doesn’t stray too far from bacchanalia, either. Like any self-respecting über-jock (he was a high school wrestler), he’s all about conquest, whether it’s “making niggas eat dirt and fart dust” or using his dick to drive hoodrats to record-breaking orgasms (“I’ll put so much light in your life that it’ll make the roaches scatter”). And if you still haven’t caught on to his ESPN jones, there’s “Get Off Me,” where he talks about throwing wicked crossovers on rival MCs before taking them to the hole. The deepest he gets is when he muses on the end results of his bad habits on “Catch Up,” admitting that his weed-and-alcohol jones will eventually take its toll: “I’m gonna rock and roll/shake and shiver/with some blacked out lungs and a fucked-up liver.” Otherwise his philosophizing goes no deeper than the oil drips from his Escalade.
Which is not all bad, considering that Ludacris seems perfectly comfortable fashioning clever lines out of the sex-and-fun fabric. See, for example, “Ho” ‘s succession of schoolyard-ish puns (“I reach up in the sky for the ‘ho-zone layer/Why do you take a ‘ho to a ho-tel?”). In fact, without Ludacris’s hyperthyroid antics, the remix of “What’s Your Fantasy” loses fizz: Trina and Foxy Brown revisit well-worn fellatio references, and Shawna drops a line about getting her weave pulled back, leaving you wishing for more tales of DJ-booth booty calls and Dracula-themed sex games.
Still, no matter what your reservations, inclinations, or disposition, it’s hard not to eventually surrender a smile (or a nod) to Ludacris’s lyrical mugging, even as the boys’-club banter on “Back” unwinds like a lost weekend with Michael Irvin. As if he was a hired clown tasked to cheer up a sulking toddler, ‘Cris keeps at it until you eventually break down, hammering you with his verbal update of the Bears’ old “46” defense, confident that you’ll run out of resistance before he runs out of rhymes. And secure that even if you don’t, you’ll be chuckling too hard to notice.