LudaversalThe cover for Ludaversal sums up the album perfectly. The picture shows Ludacris’ first ride – a ’93 Acura that he still owns – alongside his current ride, a private jet. It’s the perfect image for an album that sees the rapper absolutely on top of the world (recently married, and opening a blockbuster film the same week as his eighth album drops) yet still sounding ferociously hungry. In an age where a lot of his classmates are content to coast on their credentials, Chris Bridges has delivered an album that ranks among his best.

The album hits the ground running. Almost as if to make a statement, Luda dispenses with the pleasantries. There’s no lengthy Motown sample, there’s no delivering the first two verses at half-speed before shifting into high gear. Ludacris tears right out of the gate, proving that he’s still one of the world’s pre-eminent speed-rappers. The album is a full-frontal assault, as if its entire reason for being is to prove that success hasn’t softened the rapper at all. The first two-thirds of the album in particular are a non-stop showcase of Luda at his hyperkinetic best, delivering rapid-fire double-entendres and growling at his detractors to say to his face what they’ll say about him in the recording booth.

There’s a bit of conventional wisdom about how entertainers get less relatable as they become successful, like the stand-up comedian who gets big enough to tour, and suddenly all of his material is about airports and motels. There’s no feeling like that here – partially because Ludacris has been talking an enormous game since Day One – but also because this album has a couple of disarmingly introspective moments thrown in amidst the typical rap grandstanding. “Grass Is Always Greener” starts out sounding like a celebration of all the areas he’s found success, but ultimately becomes a wry meditation on shifting definitions of happiness. “Ocean Skies” is a meditation on the life his father, and the struggle with alcoholism that took him away.

The last few tracks of the album are a little slower, and a little more focused on storytelling and introspection. It’s a bit of a shift – In terms of pure enjoyment, freewheeling Ludacris is more engaging. The lyrical gymnastics that he can spin out when he lets himself free-associate are a lot of what makes him so unique. That’s not to say that the slower tracks aren’t good – they just aren’t what the first part of the album geared me up to hear.

That said, the album is very well-curated. Ideas are only explored for as long as they’re interesting, or as long as Bridges has something to say about them. A couple of tracks on the album clock in around a minute and a half, presumably because they don’t need to be any longer than that. Given his stature, nobody would complain if the album were plumped out with a little filler, but again, there seems to be a definite effort here to keep it lean.

As for the beats, there are a wide range of producers on the album, but the majority of them hail from the South, like David Banner, J.U.S.T.I.C.E. League, and Mike Will Made It. As with the lyrics, the first two thirds or so seems fine-tuned to make you want to dance with and/or fight somebody, while the back third is injected with a little more soul.

While the lyrical content itself still keeps Luda’s trademark blend of wit and aggression, a lot of the more juvenile trappings have disappeared. The stylistic nods to Ludacris’ past as a radio DJ have vanished. Most of the spoken-word tracks are gone. There is one track called “Viagra Skit,” but surprisingly, it’s the only skit on the record. (And frankly, it probably wouldn’t feel like a Ludacris album without at least one.)

(As an aside – I picked up the special edition, which adds the bulk of the “Burning Bridges” EP that was released in advance of the album. It’s good material, but the songs are noticeably darker, and clearly part of another project. They’re absolutely worth having, but you may want to label them separately on your computer. Alongside guests Rick Ross, Cee-Lo Green, John Legend, and Jason Aldean, Luda talks primarily about the isolation of fame and the dark side of wealth.)

All in all, this is a strong outing from an incredibly gifted rapper, one who continues to hone what he’s good at, and one with a keener eye than ever toward trimming the fat. If you’re a fan of Ludacris, you owe it to yourself to check it out. If you’re not familiar with him, it’s a good place to start – and frankly, it’s impressive to be able to say that about someone’s eighth album.

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