Rapper Ludacris blends music, movie personas

LOS ANGELES (Billboard) – Best-known to music fans as Ludacris, Chris Bridges is contemplating a new moniker.

"I have a new album and two movies coming out within two weeks of each other, so Mr. October is my new nickname," the rapper says with a laugh.

Like the original Mr. October, Major League Baseball’s clutch hitter Reggie Jackson, Ludacris is positioning himself to hit several home runs out of the ballpark this fall. He is completing the final tracks for his sixth album, "Theater of the Mind." Bookending the album’s October 21 release are his co-starring roles in "Max Payne" (October 17), adapted from the popular "Rockstar" videogame, and Guy Ritchie’s "RocknRolla" (October 31).

That’s not counting his earlier at-bats this year. Ludacris opened his first restaurant, Straits Atlanta, almost six months ago. On the heels of that opening, he launched two Web sites, WeMix.com and MyGhetto.com. There’s also his co-hosting stint with Motley Crue rocker Tommy Lee on environmental reality show "Battleground Earth," which ends its run on cable channel TLC in September.

Amid these forays into film and new media, Ludacris and co-manager Chaka Zulu are busy restructuring their Def Jam-based label, Disturbing Tha Peace. And prefacing the rapper’s upcoming album are his guest stints on several other projects, including the song "Chopped & Screwed," recently chosen as the second single from T-Pain’s third album, "Thr33 Ringz," slated for October 28.

Rapper. Actor. Entrepreneur. These personas are in keeping with Ludacris’ and Zulu’s concerted efforts to transition the artist beyond the short career spans most contemporary rappers encounter. It’s a music-and-more balancing act that jump-started in earnest with his last album, 2006’s "Release Therapy."

Following critical and popular acclaim for his acting roles in "Crash," "Hustle & Flow" and TV’s "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit," Ludacris cut his trademark braids and adopted a more serious demeanor for his fifth album. Club jams ("Money Maker") shared equal time with more emotional and introspective tracks ("Runaway Love" featuring Mary J. Blige; "Freedom of Preach"). The album earned him his first Grammy Award for best rap album in 2007.

"I felt like I reincarnated myself as a rapper," says Ludacris. "I know this is album No. 6, but I consider it No. 2 after ‘Release.’ There’s LL Cool J working on album No. 13 and Jay-Z, who’s on album No. 10. I’m energetic and I’m hungry. So I’ll continue to strive."

Ludacris’ rap and acting personas intersect on "Theater of the Mind." The album comprises tracks envisioned as short plots from movies. And in Ludacris’ special brand of musical theater, the featured guests — including T-Pain ("One More Drink"), the Game ("Call Up the Homies") and T.I. ("Wish You Would") — are billed as co-stars.

Among the additional track selections is the healing-themed "Let’s Stay Together." Armed with a beat and hook from artist/producers Juicy J and DJ Paul of Three 6 Mafia, Ludacris — starring as a music fan — exhorts artists to quell their beefs and come together to make better music.

The set’s official lead single is the bouncy "What Them Girls Like," co-starring Chris Brown and writer/producer Sean Garrett as Ludacris’ female-loving sidekicks. During the video’s August 24 shoot at the Microsoft House/Studio in Los Angeles, the trio’s natural camaraderie and magnetism were in keeping with the video’s premise: three fly guys who know what women like. The Chris Robinson-directed video takes its cue from the Mel Gibson movie "What Women Want," with balloon pop-ups revealing the female extras’ thoughts.

"’Theater of the Mind’ is all of my albums put together," says Ludacris. "There’s the funny Ludacris, the serious Ludacris and the story-telling Ludacris as well as the movie-making Ludacris."

Favorable early buzz on his portrayals in Ritchie’s "RocknRolla" and "Max Payne" are floating around various blogs. Ludacris co-stars alongside Gerard Butler, Thandie Newton and Jeremy Piven in "RocknRolla," which is about a London real-estate scam that attracts all manner of tough guys and underworld types. "Max Payne," a loose adaptation of the "Rockstar" videogame, finds Ludacris playing deputy police chief Jim Bravura. The movie stars Mark Wahlberg in the title role and veteran actor Beau Bridges.

"This adaptation takes the storyline and the characters to a whole other level," Ludacris says. "This is the first time I’ve played any kind of police role. It’s funny . . . in most movies, Mark plays the dominant role but my character is the dominant one over Mark. That was a power thing and I absolutely loved it."

He is also loving his role as an entrepreneur. This spring he opened Straits Atlanta with business partner and chef Chris Yeo, who owns three other Straits eateries in San Francisco, San Jose and Burlingame, Calif. The upscale (reportedly costing Ludacris $2.7 million) Thai restaurant is housed in midtown Atlanta in a building purchased earlier by Ludacris. Straits Atlanta will be the dinner site for invited guests during the rapper’s annual Labor Day charity event, billed as Luda Day Weekend. Now 6 years old, the Ludacris Foundation recently staged its annual back-to-school event, distributing school supplies, haircuts and clothes to inner-city youth.

While his XM satellite radio show has been put on hold — citing his busy schedule — Ludacris and Zulu are ramping up other business associations. Several months ago, the pair launched the two aforementioned Web sites: WeMix.com and MyGhetto.com.

WeMix.com is a joint venture with MegaMobile TV. Designed as a portal for the music community, the site helps unsigned singers, songwriters, musicians and producers create and expose new music, collaborate digitally with each other globally and receive tutorials from Ludacris and other major artists. MyGhetto.com is more of a personality-driven social network site, according to Zulu. It enables visitors from urban neighborhoods around the world to connect with each other and gain a greater understanding of social issues and lifestyles.

Coming soon is a new AT&T commercial featuring the rapper, a former pitchman for Pontiac’s Solstice roadster. On the drawing board are tie-ins for everything from clothing (the rapper’s CP Time line is being re-examined) to electronics to sports-affiliated projects.

"You only have one life to live and life is short," says Ludacris. "It’s not easy juggling so many hats. But I still have a lot to prove."