A LOOK BACK AT THE BRILLIANT IMMATURITY OF LUDA’S SECOND STUDIO ALBUM.
There is no higher compliment paid to the artist than that of being labeled an iconoclast. Music is a suffocating bottleneck, and to stick out- whether as a pearl or a sore thumb- is universally desired by the creator. It is the ultimate irony then that the journey to being recognized as a renegade usually travels through the same monotonous road. The artist acknowledges a frustration with the status quo and sets out to redefine it for the masses. The good ones speak plainly about this mission. They are often the most rewarded for bucking trends and creating new paths forward. The great ones, however, were simply born to do something else; they proceed with little to no malice in their hearts towards those who followed what their forebearers showed to be the recipe for success. They end up primarily forgotten because they themselves did not realize that by simply creating, they went toe to toe with the flat earth and convinced others, albeit subconsciously, that it was, in fact, round.
Word of Mouf (2001) will not be and was never on anyone’s radar as earth-shattering. It entered the discourse on the heels of what most consider to be the prototype of “different” in Outkast’s late-2000 album Stankonia. Eclectic in its production and execution, the duo’s fourth studio project was a revelation for mainstream music and was a source of exceptional pride for Atlanta and southern hip hop. The music had always been gritty and respected but never revered. Uncle Luke and Three Six Mafia had always been an expected guest to the dinner party, but the hip hop elites knew better than to pull out their best china for the occasion. It was clear to all, however, that Outkast knew what fork to use for the duck tourtieres. Given Outkast’s cornering of the market on ingenuity, the only other option for a southern hip hop album and artist was to follow the preordained script of what constituted a hit sans the new millennium. Millions of pimply-faced 7th graders lifted a middle finger to Tipper Gore and the parental advisory constraints of Best Buy with the advent of Limewire and Morpheus. Given the money to be made and new frontiers to be conquered, it felt as though the titans of hip hop gathered together and put out an APB on what to do to corner the market in this new landscape. A tried and true production line of verse, R & B chorus, feature, and verse emerged. Ja Rule is no John D. Rockefeller, but by god did he master this approach and proceed to make millions of dollars from it. His album Pain is Love in early 2001 is a masterpiece in plug-and-play, trust the process music creation. “Down ass Bitch”, “Always on Time,” and “Mesmerize” are an equal serving size of brilliant and monotonous. The squeeze was on, particularly for an Atlanta-based rapper. Be different and attempt to out-Outkast Outkast or follow the playbook and churn out a couple of 106 & Park hits before combusting into an anecdote at local skating rinks and bar mitzvahs.
If Ludacris was privy to this mounting pressure during the creation of Word of Mouf, it’s hard to find traces of its fingerprints on the final product of the album. Pressure is a funny thing, isn’t it? Conventional wisdom suggests two binary outcomes; either pressure makes diamonds, or it smothers you. But what about pressure as oblivion? Is it possible to be so untrained that the importance of a moment can completely and utterly fly over your head and allow you to proceed as you always would have? Therein lies the true beauty and attraction of Word of Mouf– it is exceptionally immature. In Word of Mouf’s blissful ignorance, a minimalist approach to hip hop takes hold, catapulting its singles into tracks that hang from the rafters among the all-time greats. “Roll Out” and “Saturday”, the crown jewels of the album, are sprawling steams of consciousness that derive their beats from what can only be described as the recorded sounds of a 1992 Ford Focus. “Roll Out” features a unique concoction of tightening screws and a beeping horn that quickly escalates into a schizophrenic rage. “Saturday” is an anomaly for the times. Rather than building out a beat from a sample, the song features the absurd jingling of car keys so well placed in the final product that it’s easy to imagine Mr. Tambourine man dutifully shaking a head custodian’s worth of them behind the provocation and laugher of the entire Disturbing the Peace family. “Move Bitch”, the precursor to a wave of drill-in-your-face rap mastered by Bone Crusher and Lil John two years later, was even less subliminal in its AutoZone-Esque beat structure. By ignoring the temptation for a sample and, instead, deepening the baritone of the same horn used in “Roll Out,” the song is perfect for the opening credits of The Magic School Bus if the show simply followed Ms. Frizzle on a never-ending bender.
Word of Mouf’s production was exceptionally bare-bones and counter-cultural not only in its production but also in its execution. Ludacris continued his minimalist approach by quarterbacking both “Roll Out” and “Saturday” without the presence of another voice on either track. It is hard to understate what a revelation this was. Blueprint by Jay Z, released a month before Word of Mouf and widely considered the best album of the year (decade?), was foundationally dependent on features. “Izzo (H.O.V.A),” “Girls, Girls, Girls,” and “Jigga that N***a” owe no small part of their success to their melodic R & B choruses. While Jay Z and others were still running the triangle, Ludacris insisted on isolation in both “Roll Out” and “Saturday.” Both tracks are the best of what solo rap can be. Frequently, artists like J. Cole can sound like a subway bum following you from train to train, making their case for the aliens invading Fulton Street. By stripping away the indulgence of complication and, instead, leaning on brevity and adrenaline, both songs pack a powerful punch reminiscent of a snatch and run mugging. All of the other singles that follow the more traditional approach of the times still hold on to an aura of authenticity that strikes at the heart of Word of Mouth’s durability over time. In both his classic southern tracks (“Go to Sleep,” “Get the Fuck Back”) and his Pop-R & B ‘ballads’ (“Area Codes,” “Growing Pains”), there is the distinguishing trait of being inspired by rather than imitated from. The mainstream had clearly influenced these songs- after all, Ludacris did not live in nor grow up in some nuclear basement shelter. Rather than starting from scratch in an attempt at replication to fit the times, Word of Mouth incorporated these new tendencies into its already set-in-stone DNA. It produced the best of what music is capable of- homage, ingenuity, and unassuming authenticity. Consumers can and will always be able to sniff out a try-hard and a copycat. For whatever its downfalls, no one could ever claim they got a whiff of either when listening to Word of Mouf.
Being young and naive can only last so long. All of us eventually succumb to expectations or “responsibility” and Ludacris is no different in that respect. Chicken & Beer, his third studio album released two years later, contained flashes of similar brilliance felt on Word of Mouf. Any remanence of the youthful simplicity that defined Word of Mouf was drained from Ludacris by the time he was featured in Autin Powers and pumped out “Number One Spot.” It opened the door to a new level of audience reach and recognition while closing the door on the spontaneity that had defined his musical career to that point. Some claimed it was another case of corporate selling out. Others recognized it for what it was- getting old. Whatever you may think of Fast-and-Furious-How-Low-Can-You-Go Luda, there is a paper trail of previous exuberance and fantastical childishness found in Word of Mouf that significantly changed the game for a generation of freewheeling and unorthodox artists. “Move Bitch” paved the way for songs like “Clique,” allowing rap artists to fully dominate a track without the pull of feeling obligated to insert an R & B chorus. There is no “Thrift Shop” without “Area Codes”, but perhaps that’s a better case for forgetting Word of Mouth than revering it. The album quietly changed the game and remains to this day the flagship of a less is more approach to music creation, but it also serves as a reminder to us of what it feels like to be young and dumb without significant care in the world. The most important aspect of this album is the reminder to never get old. But when that plan inevitably fails, make sure you’re able to look back and be proud of what your authentic self looked like, no matter how imperfect it may be.