The Number Ones

October 28, 2006

The Number Ones: Ludacris’ “Money Maker” (Feat. Pharrell)

Stayed at #1:

2 Weeks

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.

When Ludacris first used the word “classic,” I felt nothing but despair. I thought he was done. In the lead-up to 2006’s Release Therapy, his fifth album, Luda told the world that he was about to drop his opus on us. A month before the release of Release Therapy, Luda informed MTV that his days as a fun-loving punchline master were over:

They might have loved the music, but they didn’t really take me serious. With Release Therapy, you have no choice whatsoever. You’re going to take me serious on this album, I guarantee it…

I know it’s my classic album. It’s one of those albums that’s so powerful to me that I feel like it’s going to mark the moment in history. Five, 10 years from now, if you look back and be like, “You remember that album Release Therapy?” You’re going to think about what was going on in the world and what was going on in your personal life.

No, I thought. Wrong. All wrong. Ludacris had fallen victim to the anxiety that bedevils so many rap A-listers. Luda had become overwhelmingly successful as a frantically energetic rap comedian, a guy who could show up with an unabashedly silly guest verse that would charge any song with adrenaline. It wasn’t enough for him. Luda already had made a classic album, and it was a classic because it didn’t worry one bit about whether people thought it was a classic. Luda’s 2000 major-label debut Back For The First Time was nothing but banger after banger — no R&B hooks, no serious-issue songs, just funny absurdity and hard-ass beats for a solid hour.

After Back For The First Time, Ludacris kept that inventive daffiness on his guest-verses; for my money, he might be the best 16-bar cameo artist in rap history. Luda’s own albums always had a few bangers, and his first chart-topper “Stand Up” is one of them. But those albums never had the same sense of wild momentum as Back For The First Time. Luda was best when he was shallowest, when he only wanted to push a song forward. So when Luda started implying that he was making deep music, I got that old sinking feeling.

Release Therapy is not a classic album. Like a lot of Ludacris records, it’s a mess with some bright spots. But fortunately, Luda didn’t worry too much about making artistic statements, and “Money Maker,” the album’s first single, practically delights in its shallowness. As a result, Ludacris scored his second and final #1 hit as lead artist. Years later, “Money Maker” really does mark its moment and make you think about what was going on on the world during that pre-crash moment, though that time-capsule quality has less to do with the song itself and more to do with the movie sync down in the Bonus Beats.

You can imagine what Ludacris was thinking when he told MTV about his non-classic classic album. In 2006, Ludacris was one of the biggest rappers in the world. Luda had released four albums, and all of them had gone at least double platinum. He’d started an acting career that led to appearances in a couple of serious Oscar contenders. He’d had a prominent role in Crash, the 2004 movie that randomly and embarrassingly won Best Picture. He’d also proven himself as a record executive, launching his Disturbing Tha Peace label and finding success with artists like Chingy, Bobby Valentino, Field Mob, and Playaz Circle. But Ludacris was right that nobody was talking about him as one of the great rappers of his era. That clearly bothered him.

In some sense, Ludacris was caught between worlds. Luda emerged as a star at a transitional time, when the focus of the rap world was shifting from New York to Atlanta. New York resented its loss of dominance, and the East Coast rap magazines and radio stations often refused to treat Southern stars as heavyweight artists. Luda had a chip on his shoulder about that. At the same time, Ludacris had little connection to the drug-dealing underworld that traditionally fuels Atlanta rap. He had a chip on his shoulder about that, too. On Release Therapy, Ludacris has a line about “never sold cocaine a day in my life, but I’m still the fuckin‘ man.” He sounds defensive.

Ludacris could rap. Everyone knew that. Every once in a while, on a track like Nas’ “Made You Look” remix, Luda would absolutely black out, and everyone would act appropriately impressed. (“Made You Look” peaked at #32 in 2002.) For the most part, though, people thought of Ludacris as a fun rapper. He wasn’t hard, and he didn’t have gravitas. Performances like the “Made You Look” weren’t going to earn Ludacris a place in the pantheon, and Luda wanted that place.

After a few years, Luda’s goofy bangers weren’t hitting in quite the same way, either. Luda’s 2004 album The Red Light District went double platinum, but its singles didn’t reliably dominate the charts. Lead single “Get Back” only made it to #13, despite an awesome scream-along chorus and an extremely funny Spike Jonze video. The album’s only top-10 pop hit was “Pimpin’ All Over The World,” a forgettable Polow Da Don-produced team-up with Luda’s R&B protege Bobby Valentino. (“Pimpin’ All Over The World” peaked at #9. It’s a 5. Bobby Valentino’s highest-charting single, 2005’s “Slow Down,” peaked at #8. It’s a 7.)

So Luda tried to bring his own seriousness. For Release Therapy, he cut off his cornrows and made prayer hands on the album cover. Somehow, that desperation for validation just made him look sillier. Maybe that’s why “Money Maker” just doesn’t land as hard as it could. Or maybe Luda was just a little more checked out. “Money Maker” is a strip-club record, and Ludacris had made plenty of those. On “Money Maker,” he sounds energetic, but he doesn’t sound inspired. “Money Maker” comes off as Ludacris hedging his bets, making a radio song to ensure that his more serious issues-based tracks wouldn’t hurt his record sales. But Ludacris remains one of our all-time great club-rappers, and he wasn’t far past his peak when he made “Money Maker.” So “Money Maker” is still pretty fun, almost despite itself.

For “Money Maker,” Ludacris went in the obvious direction, which was also the right direction. He picked the right collaborators. The Neptunes had proven themselves on the pop charts. They’d already produced a handful of songs that have appeared in this column: Nelly’s “Hot In Herre,” Snoop Dogg’s “Drop It Like It’s Hot,” Gwen Stefani’s “Hollaback Girl.” Pharrell Williams had critical respect, and he was a recognizable figure in the fashion world. On a shockingly strong DJ Drama mixtape, Pharrell had proven to be a better rapper than anyone expected. But the Neptunes needed a hit, too.

The Neptunes’ projects weren’t all doing what the duo wanted. Pharrell’s Neptunes partner Chad Hugo had tried to make a star out of his high-school friend, a singer named Kenna, and Kenna had flopped so hard that there’s a whole chapter in the Malcolm Gladwell book Blink about how a supposed can’t-miss prospect like Kenna could fail in the marketplace. Pharrell released his own solo debut In My Mind in summer 2006, and it hadn’t made much noise. Its lead single, the Gwen Stefani collab “Can I Have It Like That,” peaked at #49. Pharrell followed that one by teaming with his friend Kanye West on a song called “Number One.” It must be embarrassing when you use that title and the song doesn’t get to #1; “Number One” only made it to #57. (Pharrell would make his own #1 hit years later.)

In a lot of ways, “Money Maker” represents both Pharrell and Ludacris going back to formulas that worked for them. Luda knew that people still wanted to hear him rap excitedly about butts, and Pharrell knew that people wanted to hear him half-singing, possibly also about butts, over choppy, funky, minimal Neptunes beats. “Money Maker” might be a concession from two artists who had loftier goals, but it mostly doesn’t sound like a concession. That’s important.

“Money Maker” opens with harsh, crashing synth-strings. It sounds like a tense movie score that’s been chopped up into something more jagged. But that epic fanfare leads right into Pharrell murmuring about how you should shake your butt. The “Money Maker” hook is Pharrell and Ludacris going back and forth, and there’s a nice give-and-take to their voices. I like Ludacris informing us that we should stand next to this money like ay! Ay! Ay! Pharrell sounds cool to the point of sleepiness, while Luda can never stop himself from bellowing at the top of his lungs. Both of them seem totally locked into the beat. That beat is a deeply funky tableau of congas and timbales, with horns and organs that come stabbing in at irregular intervals. It’s a great rap instrumental.

Over that beat, Ludacris doesn’t exactly have much to say. “Money Maker” is a song about butts. We have lots of those songs, and I’m never sorry to hear another one, but I’m usually not that excited about it, either. Ludacris sounds like he’s having fun braying his pickup lines, but those pickup lines mostly aren’t as funny as the ones that he was braying four or five years earlier: “Don’t forget about this feeling that I am making you get/ And all the calories you burn from me making you sweat/ The mile-high points you earn when we taking my jet/ And how everywhere you turn I’ll be making you wet.” “Money Maker” sounds like a track made with the radio edit in mind. Luda doesn’t really cuss, and even when stations would blur out a word like “wet,” it would be perfectly obvious what Luda was saying.

There’s exactly one part of Luda’s “Money Maker” verses that I really like: “Let me give you some swimming lessons on the penis/ Backstroke, breaststroke, stroke of a genius.” It’s not the line itself; it’s the way Ludacris hollers the word “penis” with his entire chest. I am a grown man with two children and a mortgage and a minivan, but I’m still enough of a spiritual fourth grader that I’ll always be a little bit entertained at someone screaming the word “penis.” Even in his Release Therapy take-me-seriously era, Ludacris knew he had a winner there.

“Money Maker” reached #1 just after Nelly Furtado’s “Promiscuous” and Justin Timberlake’s “SexyBack,” two clubby pop tracks were co-produced by the Neptunes’ Virginia Beach contemporary Timbaland. In a lot of ways, “Money Maker” is its own kind of clubby pop track. The song feels conspicuously removed from everything that was happening in Atlanta rap in the moment. At the time, the biggest Atlanta stars, guys like T.I. and Young Jeezy, were describing criminal exploits over epic, triumphal keyboard beats. The snap-music revolution was still happening, too, and Atlanta rappers like Yung Joc and Unk were scoring hits with minimal dance-rap tracks. “Money Maker” doesn’t have anything to do with that. It sounds like two pop stars making pop-star music.

That impression extends to the video. Future Queen & Slim director Melina Matsoukas does some cool things with fashion-magazine lighting, but the “Money Maker” clip is mostly just girls dancing while Ludacris and Pharrell emerge from a giant CGI bank vault and rock immaculate and expensive-looking skinny suits. The whole thing looks antiseptic. I’m also not very into the women suddenly turning into geysers of money. Strip-club songs like “Money Maker” are always about transactional sex on some level, but they don’t have to involve women literally transforming into money. That’s where it stops being relatively harmless and starts to feel dehumanizing.

If “Money Maker” has a message, it’s something like this: You should be attracted to me because I’m rich. A whole lot of songs, rap and otherwise, say pretty much the same thing. There’s more to a song like that than what you hear on the surface. Money is seductive, especially if you don’t have it. There is a fantasy element in the idea of meeting someone who can snap his fingers and make your problems go away; plenty of beloved cinematic classics rest on that same conceit. Still, it’s a little depressing if you stop to think about it. “Money Maker” is a funky, catchy, energetic song, but it’s not quite funky or catchy or energetic enough to keep those thoughts out of my head. When those thoughts do invade, the song begins to feel rote and joyless. That’s why “Money Maker” is best heard in isolation, at a club or a party, and not in the context of Release Therapy, which is often rote or joyless for different reasons.

You can hear some of that rote joylessness on “Runaway Love,” the second single from Release Therapy. Teaming up with former Number Ones artist Mary J. Blige, Luda takes a courageous stand against child abuse and neglect. It sounds like Luda playing dress-up as a serious rapper, doing his version of a U2-style social-issues ballad. “Runaway Love” is a well-intentioned exercise in empathy, but that doesn’t stop it from being hacky and boring. I was pretty surprised when “Runaway Love” became almost as big a hit as “Money Maker.” (“Runaway Love” peaked at #2. It’s a 4.)

Even with two big hits, though, Release Therapy sold worse than any previous Ludacris album. The rap world was changing, and so was the pop world. Ludacris’ guaranteed-hit era was over. As lead artist, Luda only made the top 10 once more, when his 2009 club-rap track “How Low” peaked at #6. (It’s a 6.) Ludacris last appeared on the Hot 100 in the lead-artist role in 2014, when his Miguel collab “Good Lovin'” peaked at #91.

Don’t feel bad for Ludacris. He’s doing great. Luda had his first real acting role in 2002, when he played street-racing boss Tej Parker in 2 Fast 2 Furious. In the late ’00s, Luda kept showing up in random movie roles: Fred Claus, Max Payne, Gamer. In 2011, though, Ludacris returned to the suddenly-resurgent Fast & Furious franchise, and Tej became a beloved staple of the Toretto crew. Those movies are now global blockbusters, and Ludacris is probably more famous for playing Tej than for rapping now. In 2021, he and Tyrese were the guys who flew a Pontiac Fiero into space.

Ludacris is also an absolute beast of a live performer. At Hot 97’s Summer Jam in 2007, Luda performed in an unrelenting rainstorm, and he took the stage after flat, messy sets from his Def Jam labelmates Fabolous and Young Jeezy. I wasn’t too amped to see Ludacris on that day, but he hit the stage like a whirlwind, performing a set full of bangers that was both breathlessly energetic and professional. This guy rehearses. It has served him well. He still gets booked at festivals.

For years, Ludacris also remained the king of the guest-verse. Ludacris verses worked on rap songs, on R&B songs, and on straight-up dance-pop songs. When dance-pop took over the Hot 100, the Luda guest-verses did not disappear. We’ll see guest-rapper Ludacris in this column again.

GRADE: 6/10

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BONUS BEATS: Here’s Amerie singing her own version of “Money Maker” on a 2006 mixtape:

(Amerie’s highest-charting single, 2005’s “1 Thing,” peaked at #8. It’s a 10.)

BONUS BONUS BEATS: In his 2015 financial-crash quasi-comedy The Big Short, director Adam McKay makes dramatic, memorable use of “Money Maker.” Christian Bale plays Michael Burry, the one person who realized that the housing market was about to crash, and “Money Maker” plays over a montage of him buying credit default swaps from disbelieving bankers. McKay even uses a bit of the “Money Maker” video. Essentially, The Big Short uses “Money Maker” as a symbol of a doomed era when free money seemed to be everywhere and when financial-industry arrogance was about to fuck everything up for everyone. That’s not quite fair to “Money Maker,” but it’s not quite unfair, either. Here’s that clip:

The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal The History Of Pop Music is out now via Hachette Books. Buy it and then stand next to this book like ay ay ay.

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