In 2004, Spike Jonze had already made Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, and he’d mostly retired from making music videos. There were, however, exceptions. Jonze, for instance, couldn’t resist the opportunity to give Ludacris gigantic fake-muscular arms and to film Luda as he beat up a way-too-aggressive urinal networker (played by former Pharcyde member/Jonze short-documentary subject Fatlip) in the “Get Back” video. What was Spike Jonze going to do? Not make a Ludacris video? That would’ve been ridiculous. In 2004, no rapper was more dedicated to being goofily, absurdly larger-than-life than Ludacris. More than anyone before or since, he made rap stardom look fun. Jonze took that and ran with it. So did everyone else on Earth.
So it’s weirdly dispiriting to see Ludacris show up in another new music video, showing off enormous and fake joke-muscles, and have it fall as flat as it did this week. That “Get Back” video essentially had a one-joke premise: Ludacris is mad when people keep bothering him. And his new “Vitamin D” video also has one: Ludacris thinks he looks better than he does. But the song itself is a turgid dad-joke groan: The vitamin? That’s his dick! Get it? And the video is so far-removed from the giddy rush of “Get Back” that it barely registered. One of the weirdest stories of the past few days has been the people on Twitter making fun of Ludacris, thinking he was seriously trying to fool us into thinking that he was that jacked. That has plenty to do with Twitter’s mob-fueled snark culture. But then, the Ludacris of a few years ago never would’ve had to point out that he was joking. Everyone would’ve just assumed that he was.
It’s impossible to overstate how much joy Ludacris brought into the world when he first showed up. Back For The First Time, Luda’s 2000 Def Jam debut, is one of my favorite rap albums of all time. It’s an absolutely unrelenting hurricane of horny, good-natured energy. There’s no arc to the album, no structure or concept. It’s just one towering banger after another. Virtually every song has a hook that’s fun to yell into your friend’s face while you’re drunk. Even the experiments — like “Mouthing Off,” on which Luda and super-scientifical vocabulary-flexer 4-Ize trade punchlines — are overwhelmingly, stupidly goofy. The album is just Incognegro, the 1999 self-released indie debut that Luda made when he was still a local Atlanta radio DJ, with a few singles stapled on. It slaps harder than any album has ever slapped before.
Bangladesh, back when he was using the name Shondrae, produced most of it, so if you’ve never heard it, try to imagine six variations on “A Milli” on the same LP. And while Luda repped Atlanta as hard as he could, he didn’t rap with a Southern drawl. He’d come from the Chicago suburbs, only living in Atlanta for a few years before the album came out, and his excitable, exacting Midwestern elocution helped Luda’s star transcend his region. And he was funny! “I make niggas eat dirt and fart dust! / Then give you a $80 gift certificate to Pussies R Us!” “Are there any more like him? Hell nah! / I treat humans like students! Fail y’all!” The album has aged shockingly well, even though a novelty like “Ho,” hilarious in 2000, mostly just seems dickish now. It’s dated, of course, but just try to listen to Luda yelling the word “shagadelic” at the top of his lungs without grinning.
Luda would never make another album like Back For The First Time; he started loading his LPs up with misbegotten R&B panders and dumber-than-dirt concept songs like “Splash Waterfalls.” He’d knock out a new album every year or two, and those albums would be good for one or two irresistible monster-bangers: “Roll Out,” “Move Bitch,” “Stand Up.” (I kept buying the albums, no matter how bad they got.. That’s just who I was.) Somewhere along the line, Luda decided that he was a serious rapper; I have tragic memories of him referring to 2006’s limp Release Therapy as a “classic” before it was even out. Still, he was one of my favorite rappers for years, mostly because he absolutely demolished every guest appearance. In fact, it started to become an eerie sort of mystery: How could Luda’s albums be so forgettable when he was upstaging all these other rappers on their own songs?
On Usher’s era-defining “Yeah!,” Luda filled cups like double Ds. On OutKast’s “Tomb Of The Boom,” he pitied you for your cubicles and Subarus. On Lil Jon’s “Bia Bia,” he said, “It’s cool, get at me,” and then his voice got raaaaaaspy. On Trina’s “B R Right,” he didn’t have time for lames or games, but he did have time to trill “oooh-eee walla-walla bing-bang.” His verse on Ciara’s “Oh” is a tiny masterpiece in ticcy, tourettic hiccup-rapping. Through his Disturbing Tha Peace imprint, Luda was responsible for bringing us the briefly-enormous talentless hitmaker Chingy, but he mostly made up for it with his verse on Chingy’s “Holidae Inn”: “Dr. Giggles, I can’t stop until it tickles / Just play a little D and I’ll make your mouth dribble.” And if you ever want to watch me dissolve into a loud and deliriously happy mess, feed me a couple of drinks, put on Missy Elliott’s “One Minute Man,” and skip straight to the Luda verse. I will yell the whole thing loud enough to rattle your windows: “Enough with tips and advice and thangs! I’m big dog, having women seeing stripes and thangs! They go to sleep, start snoring, counting sheep and shit! They so wet that they body started leaking shit! Just cuz I’m a all-nighter, shoot all fire! Ludacris balance and rotate all tires!“
It didn’t last forever. It couldn’t. Nobody could maintain that level of inspired silliness for long, and Luda did it for longer than anyone might expect. Eventually, that same inertia that affected Luda’s albums came for his guest verses. It got so bad that I saw Luda at Summer Jam in 2007 and was absolutely shocked to see that this guy, one of my favorite rappers a year or two earlier, put on an insanely fun show. But the weird thing was that Luda’s music didn’t really change. He figured out soon enough that people weren’t listening to him for serious messages, but there was suddenly no joy or energy in his giddy sex-raps. His songs came out, got heavy radio-play, and then immediately evaporated. When Adam McKay used 2006’s “Money Maker” a bunch of times on The Big Short, it was a sudden blast of deja vu; I’d forgotten that the song had ever existed. And I’m pretty sure Luda hasn’t logged a memorable guest verse since 2007, when he showed up on DJ Khaled’s overloaded “I’m So Hood” remix.
Rap careers don’t usually sputter and die like that anymore. Once upon a time, a typical rap career would last maybe four years. These days, the genre has come to respect many of its elders, especially if they’re capable of still doing high-level work. Consider: Pusha T has been in the public eye for about the same amount of time as Ludacris, and every new Pusha song is an event. A new Luda song is not an event. A new Luda song is a reason to roll your eyes and wonder why he’s still making music. 2 Chainz, who spent years as Ludacris protege Tity Boi, is now one of our most consistently entertaining rappers, and his whole dad-joke style isn’t that different from Ludacris, but 2 Chainz sounds infinitely more energetic and inspired these days than his old label boss does. So why is Ludacris still making music?
Luda could’ve stopped making music. He’s probably set for life just off of the YouTube residuals from his verse on Justin Bieber’s “Baby.” And then there was the acting. In the summer of 2005, Luda showed up in both Crash and Hustle & Flow, two serious movies that have not aged well at all. But Luda was a surprise in both of them, and he cut off his braids to get more of those roles. (There’s never been a clearer case of the axiom about rappers falling off immediately after cutting their hair.) But he squandered whatever buzz he got from those two movies, appearing in misbegotten studio film after misbegotten studio film: Fred Claus, RocknRolla, Max Payne, Gamer.
But Luda’s acting career endures for an unexpected reason. In 2003, at the height of his rap fame, Luda took his first-ever non-cameo role in John Singleton’s cash-in sequel 2 Fast 2 Furious, reportedly only getting cast after Ja Rule turned the movie now. So in 2011’s Fast Five, when director Justin Lin made a super-gang out of all the best cast members from previous Fast & Furious movies, Luda got the call. And he’s been a key part of the Toretto gang ever since, sticking around as the Fast & Furious movies somehow became our greatest big-budget movie franchise. Luda is awesome in those movies — ostensibly playing a computer expert even though everyone knows he’s really just there to make fun of Tyrese’s character. I am 100% certain that he only released “Vitamin D” this week because The Fate Of The Furious comes out on Friday and so people are reminded that Ludacris exists.
This morning, MTV announced that Ludacris would be the host of a newly rebooted version of Fear Factor, the early-’00s eating-bugs competition show. Luda will now do a job previously held by Joe Rogan, one that somehow took Rogan from News Radio ensemble player to UFC commentator and ayahuasca-chugging podcast host. This is a really fucking stupid idea. It also makes a sad kind of sense. They only make Fast & Furious movies about every two years; Luda needs something to do in the meantime. He was a truly great rapper once. He probably won’t be one ever again. In the meantime, if we need someone to laugh uproariously while hapless ordinary people drink horse-eyeball juice and barf, why not Ludacris?
1. Gucci Mane – “Pardon Me” (Feat. Rocko)
Gucci is clumsier and less clever these days than he was in his 2009 glory days, but the sheer confidence he displays on a song like this mostly makes up for it. Also: “That’s your CEO? We used to gamble for his contract. I damn near lost his first three albums playing blackjack.”
2. Killa Kyleon – “Killing Over Jays”
I’ve been hearing stories about kids getting killed for their Air Jordans since back when Michael Jordan was actually playing basketball, so it’s weirdly appropriate that the great Houston hardhead Killa Kyleon has bellowed his violence-lament over a breathlessly funky late-’80s hard-blat beat like this.
3. AZ – “Save Them” (Feat. Raekwon & Prodigy)
Old-head ’90s New York rappers are going to be mad about some shit. That’s a given. The good ones will channel that anger into something. And AZ, Rae, and Prodigy are three good ones. “I don’t condone bullshit bars” is a very non-bullshit half-bar.
4. Benny – “Luger” (Feat. Westside Gunn & Conway)
Finally, rap acknowledges that the “Hard In Da Paint” producer Lex Luger is not the only Lex Luger. Also: Westside Gunn and Conway might be making less commercial music since they signed with Eminem, which is a glorious thing.
5. Kevin Gates – “What If”
I’ll be honest. This is a pretty boring song. But hearing Kevin Gates sing Joan Osborne makes me think of the Pitchfork Over/Under video where he sang Blink-182 and Panic! At The Disco, and that’s enough to get it onto this list.