New mouf of the South

With a new record and a non-stop work ethic, Atlanta's latest hip-hop superstar Ludacris makes the most of his sudden fame

Of course, there was a time when there was no line of reporters, cluster of photographers or cadres of television crews waiting for their 15 minutes with Atlanta rapper Ludacris. But those days are long gone for the 24-year-old born Chris Bridges. In just over a year, Ludacris has become a hip-hop star of the largest kind.

It seems like every time you turn on a hip-hop radio station, the high-energy, super-animated MC can be heard busting out. His second album, Word of Mouf, debuted at No. 3 on Billboard's Top 200 chart and at No. 1 on the Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart. Meanwhile, sales from last year's Back for the First Time, the Def Jam Recordings debut that put him on the map nationally, are at 3 million and counting. And that's just his own records. In the past year, Ludacris also has shown up on tracks by everyone from Mariah Carey and Missy Elliott to Jermaine Dupri, Ginuwine and Three 6 Mafia, not to mention compilations by FUBU and the Rush Hour 2 soundtrack.

All of this makes him very happy. But very tired.

This afternoon, as Ludacris sits in the cozy lounge area of the Hawthorne Suites Hotel in Buckhead, the side effects of a meteoric rise to the top are showing. Exhaustion rests on his slender face and faint lines arc beneath eyes that wouldn't mind a little more sleep. Ludacris isn't complaining, though.

"I would say the biggest way my life has changed is money," he says, a huge smile stretching across his face. "I can pretty much buy anything I want to right now."

His favorite new toy is a custom Cadillac DeVille with 20-inch rims and built-in televisions. "It has a lot of stuff in it. It's green. I call it the chronic," he says. "But the best thing is to be able to take care of my family like they took care of me all of their lives. I just got my dad a Cadillac and my mom the new Lexus. Knowing they will be all right, and if they need something I got 'em — that's a great feeling in itself."

With the yin, however, there must be yang. Ludacris, like any celebrity, had to come to grips with sacrificing his privacy. "It's pretty much gone," he admits. "It's hard to go places without being recognized, and a lot of times I might wanna go somewhere and just chill."

But again, Ludacris isn't complaining. "Really," he says, "there's definitely more good than bad."

Success is always particularly sweet when you had to bust your balls for it. And even though Ludacris was a well-known on-air personality at local hip-hop station Hot 97.5 (now Hot 107.9), making the transition to recording artist was far from easy.

"It was like blood, sweat and years," he says. "I didn't even know how hard I was working until I reflect back on it now. Juggling the radio job with the independent record thing was no joke, and I didn't want anyone to help me. I wanted to do this on my own. I would drive to places like North Carolina, Alabama, just to give radio stations my music. I put up posters on poles all across Atlanta myself. And when I went to work" — which included nightly 6-10 p.m. air shifts, promotional appearances and hosting parties around town — "I would work, leave and go right back to doing what I was doing."

It took four years to save the money to finance his recording dreams. "Sometimes I had to stop and wait until I got more money to keep going," he says. It took another year to get his indie debut, Incognegro, off the ground. But soon, his perseverance paid off. Ludacris sold 30,000 copies of the record on his own and touched off a major-label bidding war before selecting Def Jam South (the newly formed Atlanta arm to the famed New York hip-hop label), to partner with his Disturbing Tha Peace label.

"When you do it the way I did it — prove to a record company that you can do it on your own and what you're doing works — you have creative control. And if you have good business sense, your contract is going to be right. Because they're coming to you, asking what you want, opposed to you going to them and telling them what you want, and them not giving it to you. You have bargaining power when you do it the way I did it."

As a self-described perfectionist who wanted to be a rapper since he was a 9-year-old kid growing up in Peoria, Ill., Ludacris exercises that creative control as much as possible. "I always talk to the directors of my videos and tell them what I want. The same way with my album cover — like those are Poon's teeth on the dog," he explains, proud of the personal touch. In addition to modeling, Poon Daddy, his longtime friend and former radio co-host, also does A&R for Ludacris' company.

"As an artist, I think my job is to express myself the only way I know how," Ludacris says. "I talk about things that go on in my life. Things I want to get off my chest or just act crazy. Whatever it is, it's entertaining. I kinda make music for myself, because that's what I enjoy. And I think I make pretty catchy hooks and choruses, so no matter what age you are or what ethnicity, you can relate."

Word of Mouf proves this true. Building on the solid foundation established with Back for the First Time, the new album is also chock-full of club rockers, trunk-speaker knockers and, of course, plenty of freaky tales produced by many of the industry's finest, including Timbaland and Atlanta's own Organized Noize.

When presented with the observation that sex, marijuana and automobile references in his songs are like gold teeth at Greenbriar Mall on Saturday afternoon, he sighs. "It's so weird how everything that's good is a sin. That's a song within itself. There are just some things a person likes to do. Sex is one of them. It's the equivalent of eating chocolate. You crave certain things and you gotta go get that hump up out ya back. You've got to have been there and done it enough to get over it. It's all about curiosity. That's what that is: Curiosity killed the cat."

But don't expect anything to kill this cat's curiosity anytime soon. He's in love with life and ready to embrace whatever his future holds. Already, Ludacris has started work on his third album. He has a cameo role in the Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg film, The Wash, and he's been reviewing other scripts too.

Just as Ludacris begins settling into his hotel-lounge chair, stroking his signature diamond handcuff pendant as he answers questions, a Def Jam exec comes over to remind him of another pressing commitment. Scores of fans are awaiting his arrival at a nearby record store. Time to wrap up his cozy fireside chat.

"I have a lot more to do and a long way to go," says Ludacris. "But music is my focus. I'm trying to get put in that limited category of people who have four and five good albums, so every hump I get over is like a victory and I keep looking at what's next."