When bullying blowhard Bill O'Reilly publicly condemned Ludacris as a violent, drug-glorifying monster, he inadvertently highlighted one of the MTV-friendly rapper's chief artistic weaknesses. Compared to hardcore gangsta MCs, Ludacris is about as threatening as Pat Boone, but the rapper has shown a frustrating tendency to lace his otherwise jubilant work with

tiresome gun talk. He's at his weakest when playing the tough guy, which makes it fortunate that on Chicken-N-Beer, Ludacris devotes only one track ("We Got") to his love of guns. The Atlanta rapper's subject matter is otherwise only marginally more wholesome, but few of his peers mine the well-worn topics of freaky sex and drugged-out debauchery with such irreverent glee. When he's at his best, as on the killer Kanye West-produced single "Stand Up" and the punchline-packed "Hip Hop Quotables," Ludacris is fun incarnate, the joyous embodiment of rap's commitment to hedonism at all costs. With impeccable comic timing sharpened by years as a radio personality, Ludacris knows how to wring the most out of every line, and he moves effortlessly from the childlike wonderment of "Diamond In The Back" to the horndog lustiness of "P-Poppin'," which suggests what a collaboration between Kraftwerk and a funnier 2 Live Crew might sound like. Ludacris gets uncharacteristically serious on "Diamond In The Back," "Hard Times," and "Eyebrows Down," which makes Chicken the rapper's most emotional, autobiographical major-label release to date. But fans needn't worry: There's still plenty here to offend prudes, women, and O'Reilly, whose anti-Ludacris crusade has earned him a prominent place in the rapper's lyrics. Def Jam South's golden boy steadfastly refuses to be a role model, but only someone as deluded and myopic as O'Reilly would demand moral leadership from a pop star. Ludacris promises listeners nothing but a rowdy good time and ample laughs, and on Chicken-N-Beer, he delivers.

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