Since the explosion of the Dirty South after 2000, many rappers that lack what we critics call “talent” have emerged. Fortunately, this year’s headliner at the Sun God festival, Ludacris, does not find himself on this extensive list. Although many may lump Ludacris into the nondescript genre of mainstream rap, Luda tends to break the mold more often than conforming; just ask Bill O’Reilly, who engaged in a verbal sparring match with the rapper that resulted in the loss of Luda’s Pepsi endorsement.
Ludacris truly earned his way into the game, justifying his claim as a “self-made millionaire” on The Red Light District’s “Child of the Night.” Starting off as a radio-show DJ in Atlanta, Luda paid his dues and eventually released his independent debut, Incognegro, in 2000. The album was a huge success in Atlanta, and when the sexually explicit “What’s Your Fantasy?” began picking up steam as a regional hit, Scarface, who had just begun as a talent scout for Def Jam South, selected Ludacris as his first signing.
Back for the First Time was Ludacris’ first release under Def Jam, and the album made quite a splash with hits like “What’s Your Fantasy?,” “Southern Hospitality” — which taught those not in the know how it’s done in the South (“Cadillac grills, y’all”) — and “Phat Rabbit,” one of Luda’s first tracks, which was initially featured on Timbaland’s 1998 release, Bio.
The outstanding success of the album, coupled with mainstream America’s acceptance of the in-your-face style of Southern rap, led to Luda’s second major-label release, Word of Mouf. This album was anchored by the strength of its singles. “Rollout (My Business)” was the infectious lead single, but “Area Codes,” “Growing Pains,” “Move Bitch” and “Saturday (Oooh Oooh!)” were close behind. It is no surprise that the album was as successful as it was, peaking at the third position on the Billboard music charts in October 2001. One couldn’t turn on the radio or MTV from late 2001 through the summer of 2002 without hearing Ludacris’ cocky flow and witty punchlines.
While Word of Mouf cemented Luda’s reputation as one of the better mainstream rappers in the business, Chicken and Beer, his third release, illustrated that his lyrical ability was just as strong as his ability to craft a catchy hook. “Stand Up” and “Splash Waterfalls” were the radio-friendly tracks, albeit fairly unrepresentative of the quality of the album. Luda shines brightest on “Hard Times,” which features Southern pioneers 8 Ball and MJG, and “Hip-Hop Quotables,” one of the funnier songs on any Luda album, with myriad pop culture references (including a pretty decent impression of South Park’s Mr. Mackey) and one-liners (“you put up with more shit than a colostomy bag”).
What makes Ludacris’ Sun God performance exciting is that, unlike past performers Busta Rhymes or Mos Def, Luda has released an album recently that still has many successful singles circulating. The Red Light District doesn’t exactly break any new, profound ground in Ludacris’ career, but it is an enjoyable album from the start, with the popular “Number One Spot,” which uses a sample from the “Austin Powers” theme (only Luda could get away with that and not become a total joke), to the finish, with “Virgo,” featuring Zodiac-sign partners-in-crime Nas and Doug E. Fresh (Luda’s birthday, unfortunately for him, is Sept. 11).
Most preparations for Ludacris’ performance at Sun God will consist of lots of alcohol and weed, and I’m not trying to convince you otherwise, but mixing in some Chicken and Beer, Word of Mouf and The Red Light District will add to your experience. One should expect to hear a lot from Word as well as Red Light, and don’t forget about all of Luda’s guest spots, even though we’ve all been trying to get “Yeah!” out of our heads for about a year now. To those complaining about a mainstream rapper headlining Sun God again, deal with it. While Luda is indeed mainstream, he represents the best of hip-hop targeted at the MTV audience, and any conversation about the best Southern rapper might start with Lil’ Flip and T.I. but will usually end with Scarface and Ludacris.