With the possible exception of Missy Elliott, nobody in mainstream rap seems to derive more infectious pleasure out of playing with words than Ludacris. On tracks like "End Of The Night" and "Woozy," from his new album Release Therapy, his exuberant, playful delivery redeems generic slow-jam production and greasy-slick R&B choruses. In a string of platinum-selling albums and a box set's worth of track-stealing guest appearances, Ludacris has cultivated a ubiquitous image as a larger-than-life cartoon hedonist, but his albums have long been more intelligent and introspective than his outsized persona and high-energy singles would suggest.
Release Therapy marks Ludacris' most mature album to date. Early songs like "Girls Gone Wild" and "Money Maker"—which, like Lupe Fiasco's "I Gotcha," succeeds on the strength of its wordplay and delivery rather than Pharrell's standard-issue production—deliver the enthusiastic, party-friendly high spirits fans have come to expect, but after the slow jams, the disc takes an unexpected introspective turn. The sobering how-to-survive-the-industry manual "Tell It Like It Is" should be mandatory listening for every rapper who thinks hooking up with a major means mansions and yachts. Ludacris enlists an all-ex-con guest line-up (Beanie Sigel, Pimp C, C-Murder) for the gritty jailhouse blues of "Do Your Time," and ends the album on a triumphant note with the uplifting gospel of "Freedom Of Preach." But "Runaway Love," with its bleak ghetto-griot storytelling and empathetic Mary J. Blige hook, marks the biggest departure for Ludacris. The song's grim subject matter works against his innate exuberance, but it's refreshing to see a rap superstar challenging himself.
Always good but seldom great, Release Therapy is the rare major-label rap album that suffers from too much substance. Lyrically and thematically, Ludacris is growing up, so perhaps it's inevitable that he's incurring some growing pains along the way.