Something good has to be floating around in the Atlanta water. This year has seen ATL acts Bone Crusher, Lil Jon & the Eastside Boyz, T.I., Youngbloodz, Bubba Sparxxx and OutKast flood the hip-hop market with quality albums, helping make 2003 the year of the New South. So, where does Ludacris fit into all of this Dirty South madness?

At or near the top, as it turns out, as Luda's third release, Chicken & Beer, is quite possibly the best of the ATLien bunch. While OutKast's Speakerboxxx/ The Love Below comes a close second, the blemishes on the overproduced Speakerboxxx keep it from being an OutKast classic. On the other hand, Ludacris puts together another rock-solid album that shows why he makes more cameos than you can shake a drumstick at.

Besides his wicked sense of humor and crystal-clear diction, it's Luda's versatility that keeps Chicken & Beer tasty and intoxicating from beginning to end. Each song features a distinctively different flow from the last and touches on a new topic.

Unless you live in a hip-hop spin-free zone, by now you've probably heard his bubbling first single, the thumping Kanye West-produced club treat "Stand Up" a million times. No doubt the track's a killer, but it's Luda's wit that makes this one easy to swallow. "Watch out for the medallion," he warns, "my diamonds are reckless / feels like a midget is hanging from my necklace." The laid-back "Splash Waterfalls," meanwhile, finds Luda the relationship expert going all Dr. Phil as he intricately breaks down the difference between screwing and making love. On "Hip Hop Quotables" Luda packs in as many clever punch lines as possible over a gritty Eric Sermon beat, including one he recently cited as his personal favorite: "I own so many jerseys I'm a throwback mess / I hit the cleaners and tell 'em I want a full court press!"

On "We Got," Luda once again proves that nobody can make antisocial and even violent behavior sound like good clean fun. Somehow, over a barrage of violent gunshot drum rolls, he keeps the mood lighthearted even as he promises to leave some unlucky fellow "bleeding so hard you'll need a life-sized maxi-pad."

Lil' Flip and Luda get throwed and blowed together on the A-town/H-town summit "Screwed Up," with each bragging about their purple potion and weed-fueled adventures. But they always put business before pleasure, as Flip brags that "Zig Zags and Golden Wraps got my mind gone / drugs don't affect my work, I still get my grind on."

If his first two albums didn't do the trick, Chicken makes it plain and clear that Bill O'Reilly's favorite rapper is a brilliant MC who is becoming only more skilled as time moves on. Even Colonel Sanders' 11 secret herbs and spices couldn't make for a dish this delicious.

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David A. Herron