Playin' house 

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

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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.

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