If recording careers are measured in time spent away from the charts, it’s been an eternal five-year hiatus for Ludacris, Dirty South rap royalty who’d never missed more than two years between any of the studio albums that followed his 1999 debut, Incognegro, which he released at the tender age of 22. Now after half a decade without a new release, Luda’s finally back with a new album, Ludaversal, and a role in action juggernaut Furious 7—two projects long in the making that mark a new introspective era for the rapper, actor, and philanthropist.
“At this stage in my life, after coming out with seven consecutive albums, living some life and going through some issues, my vision got larger but my circle got smaller,” said Ludacris. We’re sitting in the Los Angeles sunshine outside a trailer set up for Furious 7, his fourth Fast & Furious movie to date and his third in five years.
The tragic 2013 death of Luda’s longtime Fast & Furious co-star Paul Walker in particular sent the franchise’s cast, filmmakers, and studio reeling with grief. Four months later, they picked up and moved forward to complete the film.
“I think we were all a little skeptical about moving on,” he said. “But when we saw the finished product we thought they did it the right way, with such grace and class.”
The marketing stars aligned this week as Ludaversal finally debuted on March 31, days before Furious 7 finally made it to theaters. “I was working on the album before this film and after, and of course there was a break when production got shut down,” Ludacris said of the timing. “But it wasn’t enough of a window to release it then, so it kind of all just happened.”
A lot of life happened during that five-year period between albums. Ludacris kept acting. He released singles and a mixtape here and there, with mixed results. Designed a line of designer headphones. Ran into Presidential hopeful Jeb Bush while getting props from the state of Georgia for his youth charity. Got married while waging a very public custody battle with the mother of his second child.
On Ludaversal, Ludacris gets personal as he proves he’s still a machine gun on the mic, weaving his lightning-fast signature flow in and out of a collection of wide-ranging tracks. And he’s definitely furious, rapping on the track “Charge It To The Rap Game”:
The false stories and being misquoted in magazinesGot a nigga wanting to go and load a couple magazinesHead to your office and shoot up the whole fucking staffPost that on your website and burn while i fucking laugh
Once the king of boisterous ATL party rap, the Ludacris of Ludaversal is on the offensive, seemingly hyperaware of having to prove himself after taking a Hollywood hiatus from a rap landscape that’s changed drastically since he last left it. On tracks like “Charge It To The Rap Game” and “Grass Is Always Greener,” Ludacris exorcises his own moody frustrations with fame, success, the media, and celebrity. Elsewhere he pens a melancholy ode to his late alcoholic father, who died in 2007, and drops a Viagra-themed skit about an erection that just won’t quit.
“I put more [personal stuff] into this album,” he explained. “That’s why I called it Ludaversal—it’s kind of like, welcome to my world. I was listening to the fans by mixing the old Luda with the new Luda in perfect balance.“
Luda’s five years away from the rap game has seen a whole new crop of second-wave trap MCs and producers rising out of the South to take over the airwaves and Internet, where next-gen hip-hop lives. He smartly tapped some of that talent for Ludaversal on tracks like “Come and See Me,” featuring Mississippi rapper Big K.R.I.T. and a beat by Mike Will Made It.
But if Ludacris feels the heat of issuing an album on the heels of well-received new releases from the likes of Drake and Kendrick Lamar, he seems to also be competing with his own past success. “It’s good to be competitive, not just with the new rappers but the ones who’ve been around as long as I have,” he said. “It does feel competitive to a degree because you always have to stay on top of what’s new, otherwise you become your own worst enemy.”
Even Tej, the character Luda first landed over a decade ago when fellow rapper-actor Ja Rule blew his 2 Fast 2 Furious shot, has drastically evolved in that time. The onetime coveralls-rocking, afro-sporting Miami gearhead orchestrating street races for Paul Walker now serves as the suave de facto tech expert of Vin Diesel’s beefy crew of international racers. He even gets a lightning-fast fight scene in the globetrotting new sequel.
“I was a little surprised but I was happy, because I like to be seen in that light and be the guy behind the scenes—tech-savvy, computer-savvy,” Ludacris said of his character’s transformation into a 21st century hacker-spy.
He thought back to the phone call that led to him joining the Fast & Furious family in his first bona fide movie role.
“John Singleton was the one who asked me to try out in the first place,” he remembered. “I was on tour with Eminem at the time. I remember trying out backstage before I was going to go on, I put it on tape, and sent it to him. The next thing I knew he called me back and said that I got it.”
That jumpstarted a second career for the man formerly known as Christopher Bridges. The next year he starred in Paul Haggis’s Oscar winner Crash, then scored roles in Hustle & Flow, RocknRolla, No Strings Attached, and New Year’s Eve, not to mention the highlight of any run in entertainment: A two-episode arc on Law & Order: SVU.
In spite of the movies, the Disturbing tha Peace label owner says music is still his priority. “Even before I was signed to Def Jam I had a business strategy in place,” he mused. “It’s called the music business for a reason—it’s like 90 percent business, 10 percent music. It’s constantly a challenge. But if it was easy, everybody would be doing it.”