By Noah Hubbell
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Imagine revamping a fiery activist anthem into a mindless, rump-shaking jam. That's exactly what Ludacris did on "How Low," which features Chipmunk-style vocal effects and young girls being seduced out of pajamas. (It should be noted that How low can you go? in Public Enemy's original version of "Bring the Noise" referred to the American criminal-justice system rather than scooting one's ass on the dance floor.)
Only Ludacris could get away with it. The undeniably charming and unabashedly crass MC is known for walking the line between offensive and infectious. Now ten years into his career, he continues to craft songs that are barely substantive enough for the critics but more than catchy enough for radio. When the rapper heard Toronto producer T-Minus's beat for "How Low," he knew he had a winner on his hands.
"Not to sound cocky or anything, but I knew exactly what it was going to do before I put it out," he says. "I knew it was a sound that we're missing in hip-hop right now, and that's what I try to do: keep things new and reinvent."
The song recalls a frenzy of Miami bass and features an abundance of good old-fashioned quick-spitting. "How Low" is the lead single on his seventh album, Battle of the Sexes, a concept piece pitting him against female MCs such as Lil' Kim, Eve, Trina and Nicki Minaj. "I have songs about women, songs talking to women, and songs where women are talking back to me," he explains, "so you get the male and the female perspective on many different issues."
Hip-hop has become more of a boys' club in recent years. Major-label albums from women are few and far between. Missy Elliott's Block Party, for example, has been delayed for years, and Lil' Kim hasn't put out a new album in half a decade.
But the fact that the project is spearheaded by someone as unchivalrous, shall we say, as Ludacris makes it feel strange. Few rappers are as lewd as he is, and Battle of the Sexes makes no effort to ratchet down the raunch. "Hey Ho" describes the catcalls heard by girls leaving Ludacris's crib as they proceed down the walk of shame, while "Sex Room" is an ode to his home's, uh, bone zone. On "I Know You Got a Man," featured rapper Flo Rida attempts to seduce his love interest by suggesting they conversate, conjugate, constipate, which doesn't sound at all appealing.
Battle of the Sexes' main difference from the legions of other sexed-up rap and R&B albums, however, is that women are equal contributors. Monica explains her feelings about an addictive yet unsatisfying relationship in "Can't Live With You," while Lil' Kim makes the case that women shouldn't be afraid of casual sex on "Hey Ho" (not a novel concept from her, but still). On "Feelin' So Sexy," Shawnna (daughter of blues man Buddy Guy) initiates a booty call, insisting that My body's so tight, I'm needing you to stretch me.
"It's kind of a male-dominated industry," Ludacris points out, "and one of the reasons I wanted to do the album was to get more of a female voice out there. Women [can use] braggadocio in hip-hop, too."