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Playin' house 

With Chicken & Beer on the way, Ludacris settles into his new life

The address of Ludacris' new house says he still lives in College Park, but the reality is that he's nowhere near the south Atlanta city he grew up in.

To get to Cris' crib, you need to drive clear past College Park's parade of deserted fast-food joints, grimy rim shops and dilapidated churches and into a semi-rural idyll of tree-lined dirt roads and rolling, yellow-green farmland dotted with spotless, planned communities. You need to drive far enough that you decide you're lost and pull into a gas station that looks like a relic from the 1950s to ask for directions. You need to find the pale, 40-ish guy with stringy, brown hair and a grease-stained Atlanta Braves T-shirt, who knows all the roads -- and most of the people -- in this area, who will help you find the street you're looking for. He'll point you up the road another half-mile or so, to a middle-class neighborhood of ranch-style houses.

That's Ludacris' new 'hood.

Of course, Luda's place is the biggest on the block by far, and the electronic gate at the top of his long, winding driveway looks a little out of place on the otherwise modest stretch of homes. The house, a grayish McMansion monstrosity, sits on a sprawling piece of property that includes woods, hills and a pond stocked with catfish.

There's a shiny Cadillac Escalade SUV in the garage and two gleaming Yamaha four-wheelers parked nearby. The circle driveway and large carport at the front of the house gives the appearance of the entry to a posh country club. For its sheer audacity, the whole place harks back to the palatial estate that helped twist MC Hammer toward bankruptcy.

Taking it all in, you can't help wonder whether he can really afford this place. Granted, both of his first two records, 2000's Back For the First Time and 2001's Word Of Mouf, sold over 2 million copies. But the way most record deals are structured, that just doesn't seem like the kind of financial windfall needed to cover a place like this. There was also the Pepsi endorsement deal, but who knows how much he got out of them before the deal got quashed by the caterwauling of Fox News blowhard Bill O'Reilly.

Just then, Ludacris comes rolling down the driveway, behind the wheel of a shimmering, metallic blue Chevy Cutlass convertible. He hops out of the car, apologizes for being late (he's early by hip-hop standards) and offers to show you around.

With his Afro pulled tight in cornrows, Ludacris looks (per the celebrity cliche) shorter in person. He walks with an unhurried gait around the back of his property and points out a pool, a tennis court and a full-length basketball court with the logo of his record label, Disturbing Tha Peace, tattooed in the center. Two of Ludacris' friends toss a football back and forth on the basketball court, while Luda talks to the construction crew working at the house about which lines he wants painted on the court's all-weather surface. He's only recently moved into the house and there's plenty of daily hassles to be sorted out.

"This is my life, man," he says with a subdued laugh. It wasn't always, though.

You were born in Illinois, right?

Yeah. I was born in Champagne, Ill. That's where my parents went to college. I basically grew up on the college scene. They used to take me to parties with them. So I would be on the dance floor, 2 or 3 years old, being the little dude, dancing and doing all sorts of crazy stuff. But I moved here at a very early age, went to high school here.

Your parents moved down here after college?

Well, my dad moved down here. I was with my mother for a little while and then I came to stay with my father, because basically I knew that Atlanta was the place. The music scene was really starting to blow up here. That was when Kris Kross and ABC, and all these little kid groups were coming up. So I was like, "Man, I need to move to Atlanta because that seems like the place to get put on."

So you were already into music at that age.

Yeah. When I was growing up, my parents used to always play music. Every day my father would play things like James Brown, Frankie Beverly and Maze, Michael Jackson. From a very early age, before I could even speak, I was born into music. I knew I wanted to do something with music from way back when my dad bought me the first piece of vinyl, which was U.T.F.O. I had to have been about 5 or 6 years old.

Were you one of those kids who was constantly performing in front of family and friends?

Yeah, man. That was me. I had my first demo tape at the age of 12. I was in a group called the Loudmouth Hooligans back in the day, and we just started doing talent shows and performing at all kinds of places. Most of the stuff I entered into, you'd have to give a certain amount of money, like $20, to enter, and then whoever won would get the pot.

What were you like at school?

When I was in school, I was just known as the kid that rapped. I wasn't necessarily a jock or the class clown, I just rapped all the time. As a matter of fact, there was a boy that used to beatbox and anybody that rapped would hook up with him -- walking down the hallways to each class or at lunchtime. Or we'd be outside when they pulled the fire alarm drill; everybody was outside and we'd have a circle around us. It was about entertainment, man. That's what it was all about.

Chris Bridges' rise from obscurity to fame began during his days as Chris Luva Luva, a DJ at Atlanta's Hot 97.5. He parlayed the gig into a record deal that made him the debut artist from Def Jam's Atlanta-based offshoot, Def Jam South. The success of his first two albums seemed to have as much to do with Ludacris' innate likability as it did the street-funk bounce of his records. He never took himself too seriously, coming off equal parts player, pimp and clown. It's a formula that's altered only slightly on his new record, Chicken & Beer.

"People are going to hear some of the stuff that made them listen to me in the first place," he says, "basic Ludacris. But I also take things the extra step. I talk about subjects no one would expect me to talk about. They'll see a serious side, talking about hard times."

Coming from the world of radio, though, he's got an astute ear for what the audience wants. So any changes will be carefully measured. "You don't want to suddenly change everything you do," he says. "More than half my album is being the regular Ludacris, then you throw in three or four songs to see if you can go that extra step. At least if it goes wrong, you know you still have your basis there."

It's easy to assume it was the same sort of pragmatism that led Ludacris toward a film career. Hip-hop careers are notoriously short, and acting has increasingly become the retirement plan of choice for rappers on the long side of 30. Ludacris' silver screen debut came this summer in the sequel to the carsploitation hit The Fast and the Furious, and he's got several more films in the hopper. He insists, though, that he doesn't want to be "just another rapper acting."

"I take it seriously," he says. "This is something I would definitely try to perfect as a craft."

But is it also a sage acknowledgement that in a youth-obsessed hip-hop universe, you've got to plan for the future?

"No," he says firmly. "Because I feel like I'm going to be in music all my life. Even if I'm writing stuff for people, that's still me being in music."

Around the side of the house, Ludacris checks the lines on a couple of fishing poles planted by the catfish pond. ("Nothing.") Then he heads inside. An abundance of glass, mirrors and a striking marble floor makes the interior of the house look even more spacious than it is. Downstairs, there's a "playroom" with a massive bar that abuts the Ludaplex, a home movie theater complete with marquee ("Now Showing: Chicken And Beer"), a large screen and plush recliner chairs. Ludacris seems mildly embarrassed by all his high-priced toys, shrugging off most inquiries about them with a quiet, "I dunno."

But the four or five friends he has hanging around the house today show little compunction about using his crib as their personal playground. Later in the afternoon, a few of them can be seen riding his four-wheelers around the edges of the property. As he stands outside his front door yelling for them not to disturb his neighbors, he looks less like a bling-flinging multi-platinum rapper with a budding movie career and more like somebody's weary father.

If there's a room in Ludacris' house that best reflects his state of mind at the moment, it's probably the one without all the trappings of his success: his bedroom. He apologizes as he shows it, noting that he's just moved in and hasn't had time to set it up yet. There's nothing but a stereo, a mattress on the floor and piles of clothes and shoes overflowing out of boxes.

As he sits on the edge of his bed and talks about his future, he seems very much like the ambitious, bright-eyed kid he so recently was.

"I just want to leave something for this world of hip-hop," he says earnestly. "I want to be known as the most versatile MC. I don't necessarily have to be the best, I just want to be the most versatile."

He continues, "Versatility and longevity go hand in hand. It scares me when I see other people disappearing so quickly, but I kind of see how it happens. Sometimes, it's the choices they make in their lives. Not everybody has the same goals. Some people want to stop after four albums or something. But I want to be able to stay."

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