Vaudeville Villain

Ludacris' Chicken-N-Beer goes flat out of the can.

SAYING THIS IS like cutting out the little chunk of my heart devoted to syncopated ribaldry, but Ludacris' latest album sucks. And it doesn't suck in epic fashion like Wu-Tang Forever or suck nobly like the last Outkast. It just kinda middlingly sucks, more product in the racks, more fat in the arteries. I mean . . . this is the guy who made "Southern Hospitality"! Still probably the best rap single of the new millennium, it featured a Neptunes trunk-slam beat that was actually once new and little 2000 Flushes rave stabs stalking Luda's menacing and comical advertisement for the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce. Between 1998 (his show-stealing cameo on Timbaland's "Fat Rabbit") and 2002 (his, uh, show-stealing cameo on Missy Elliott's "Gossip Folks"), you could put together a Ludacris collection that would be one of the best rap albums ever.

But Chicken-N-Beer (Def Jam), from the title on down, is a Xerox of a Xerox of 2001's Ludacris. It was preceded by "Stand Up," which initially sounded like his worst single ever. Eventually, hearing it every 20 minutes on the radio, its bathysphere timpani booms and Herman Munster claps wore you down. It's pleasingly thuggish, but compared to the mosh-menace of Lil Jon, it might as well be the Byrds. Plus Shawna's vocal hook is singularly irritating?what's the point of Amil-lite when the real Amil is picking up Roc-a-Fella unemployment at the moment??and at one point, Luda seems to be telling the kids of America that alcohol will help a date rape along. ABC After School Specials, where are you when we need you?

The rest of the album could have been fed into a supercomputer: Comical exaggeration of basic phonics + priapism + outrageous simile aimed at white people = Ludacris song. It's saying something that Chicken-N-Beer only comes alive on "Hip-Hop Quotables," which takes the Ludacris equation past the point of self-parody into a dozens game at the old-school Cabaret Voltaire. His comedic timing is still inhumanly perfect, like he spends his free time channel surfing between the Spice Channel, Richard Pryor Live in Concert, and Your Show of Shows. But Luda's never possessed the widest range?let's face it, whether he's rapping about sex or violence, it all goes back to that big dick, which he slangs simultaneously like a Carrot Top prop and the hammer of the gods. And he's never sounded very convincing threatening to roll all over you?when he did, he couldn't usually resist throwing in a giggly side reference to Schoolhouse Rock or Ovaltine or the Teapot Dome scandal. So I can't say it's necessarily a bad thing that he's ascended to the throne of hip-hop comedy sex goblin, a fine lineage that runs from Spoonie Gee to Slick Rick to Snoop. But even Redd Foxx had his limits.

OK, SO HIS writing is corn. (Let us not forget that this is a guy who called his first album Incognegro.) There were always the beats to balance things out. There was a reason that "What's Your Fantasy?" shot then-unknown Shondrae to national stardom: It continues to drop jaws (and drawers) four years later. And I thought I was utterly sick of the Timbaland- produced 2001 hit "Rollout (My Business)," but listening again, the way it switches up from a mutant two-step pattern on the chorus to a battery of silverware snares on the verses still gives me a rush. And then there's "Get Off Me" from the debut, Luda and Pastor Troy trading rhymes over LFO-style electro-house snipped into origami shapes with Southern bounce scissors.

There's nothing quite as unexpected on Chicken-N-Beer, and this record is suffering from a terminal lack of hooks. Ludacris may have been the dirty South's first camera-ready star, translating its forbidding techno-code flow into recognizable anthems that transcended area code, but this unobtrusive grind-grind is far from state of the art or anthemic. The closest thing to a "superproducer" is wunderkind Kanye West, a decidedly ill fit?oddly, considering he laced Luda with one of his best ever beats on Trina's "B R Right." If Luda had called David Banner or Lil Jon or Jazze Pha, we might be talking about a masterpiece here.

Ludacris, at the end of the day, was always an entertainer first, a rapper second, and, as an "artist," somewhere between Muppet and corporate shill. No surprise there?he started out as a radio DJ, after all. Anyone who tells you that being an entertainer is inherently bad has a funny understanding of how pop music works. The problem is that, as entertainers age, the shtick increases as the audience shrinks. (Andy Williams isn't packing out Branson because the septuagenarians wanna hear free jazz.) And Luda, still a serious chart threat, is pretty damn shticky already. A slight transfusion of new blood?some new producers, new sounds, even (and I do not say this lightly in 2004) some choice collaborators?could extend him another couple of great singles, at least. But as it is, Ludacris is looking more and more like the street version of MC Paul Barman, and that's why we should be worried.

Ludacris plays the Paramount Theater with Chingy at 8 p.m. Tues., Feb. 17. $39.50.

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