Three years later, Ludacris told the origin story. On Missy Elliott’s 2002 single “Gossip Folks,” Luda lays out his whole narrative in his usual twisty, frantic bellow: “Knowing he could rap, no one lifted hands/ So he went about his business and devised a plan/ Made a CD, then he hit the block/ 50,000 sold, seven dollars a pop.” And then: “Hold the phone! Three years laterrrrr/ Stepped out the swamp with 10-and-a-half gatorrrrs.” Luda’s version skips a couple of steps, but that’s pretty much how it went.
Ludacris had a plan. He always had a plan. Luda had already spent a couple of years at Georgia State University, studying music management. He’d also landed an internship at Hot 97.5, the Atlanta rap radio station. He went from intern to on-air personality, and he took the name Chris Lova Lova. This was already a major accomplishment, but that wasn’t good enough for Chris Lova Lova. He wanted to rap. He knew he could rap. He recorded quick drops for local DJs and made some big connections. Timbaland brought Luda in to rap on “Phat Rabbit,” one of the tracks from Tim’s own better-than-anyone-remembers solo debut Tim’s Bio: Life From Da Bassment. Jermaine Dupri put Luda on the intro track from the John Madden 2000 soundtrack.
But still, nobody was trying to sign Ludacris. So Ludacris made an album, and he put it out himself. The CD he made was 1999’s Incognegro, and he sold it for seven dollars a pop. To listen to Incognegro is to admire this young man’s acumen. All the decisions are smart. Luda flexed his connections to get a couple of tracks from local Atlanta heroes — one from Jermaine Dupri, one from Organized Noize. But most of the beats either came from Shondrae, an undiscovered young producer who would later take the name Bangladesh, or from Luda himself. The guest verses come from guys in Luda’s crew or from Southern underground stars UGK and Pastor Troy. Luda didn’t have the resources to make something polished, so he made something as nasty as possible, and he made himself the main attraction.
Luda’s rapping on Incognegro is just out of control. He’s loud and hungry and riotously funny. He clamps down on every syllable with crazy levels of emphasis. His delivery is a top-of-his-lungs shout that’s somehow rhythmically slick and canny enough to hit the pocket of every beat. His punchlines are overstated and stupid and genuinely funny: “I make n***as eat dirt and fart dust/ Then give you a $80 gift certificate to Pussies R Us.” In the past two decades, I have spent way too much time thinking about some of those punchlines. Consider: “Are there anyone like you? Hell naw! I treat humans like students! Fail y’all!” But students are usually humans, too! Unless it’s obedience school! I love it, and it doesn’t compute! Congratulations: You, like me, have now used too much brainpower thinking about that one perfectly delivered rap lyric. Luda clearly loves the way his voice sounds, and you can hear it in the way he bellows out certain phrases: “Lobsters! Shrimp and thangs!” “Shagadelic! Beautiful but strange!” The beats are cheap and hard. The hooks get stuck in your head all day. The energy level never dips.
For his debut single, Luda knew he had to grab people’s attention, so he made something impossible to ignore. “Ho” is one of the all-time great ignorant novelty raps, three straight minutes of of yelling that someone is a ho: “You doing ho activities! With ho tendencies! Hoes are your friends! Hoes are your enemies!” The jokes are broad and ridiculous, and Luda delivers them with so much over-the-top brio that he sells them anyway: “Ho, tell everybody! Even the mayor! Reach up in the sky for the ho-zone layer!” You could know that this was some objectionable shit, and you could love it anyway.
But “Ho” wasn’t the song that made Ludacris rich. That was “What’s Your Fantasy,” a track that started its life as an Incognegro deep cut. Over a monstrously ugly Shondrae beat, Luda brayed out all the different places where you could maybe have sex with him: The Georgia Dome at the 50-yard line, onstage at the club, in the back of the VIP, on the beach with black sand, in the public bathroom, in the back of the classroom, up on the roof, in the bathroom with the candles lit, onstage at the Ludacris concert, in the pouring rain, when it’s hot or when it’s cold out, in the library on top of books, in the White House, the sauna, jacuzzi, at the back row at the movies, in the sun or up in the shade, on the top of his Escalade, on the ocean or in the boat, factories or one hundred spokes. What about up in the candy shop? This was pure silly absurdity. It wasn’t even sexy, really. It was just fun.
Scarface understood. Scarface had never made a song even remotely like “What’s Your Fantasy” in his whole life, but he knew a hit when he heard one. At the time, Southern rap was doing huge business. Master P was moving vast numbers of No Limit CDs every couple of weeks. His crosstown New Orleans rivals at Cash Money had a smaller roster, but they were suddenly even bigger. OutKast were stars, and Goodie Mob and Jermaine Dupri were doing well, but Atlanta hadn’t yet established itself as the capital of Southern rap. Instead, indie stars with huge regional fanbases were coming out of Memphis, Houston, Miami. Def Jam Records had a lot of the biggest stars of the moment, but all of them were New York rappers: Jay-Z, DMX, Ja Rule. Def Jam wanted to get in on whatever was happening with the South, but they had no idea how to do it. So they brought in somebody who did.
Scarface might be the single figure most responsible for popularizing Southern rap. His group the Geto Boys had come out of Houston in the early ’90s, when nobody from the South except maybe 2 Live Crew had a national profile. The Geto Boys became towering and influential figures, so vivid and intense and writerly that nobody could write them off as a fad. As a solo rapper, Face had presence and gravity and respect. Def Jam hire Scarface to run Def Jam South, which was a smart decision. Scarface signed Ludacris, which was even smarter.
The thing about Ludacris: He’s not actually that Southern. Chris Bridges spent his formative years in Illinois — first in Champaign, and then in the Chicago suburb of Oak Park. He was already a teenager by the time he moved to Atlanta. That meant that Ludacris rapped without the gooey, marbled accent that made Southern rappers such a tough sell for so many East Coast listeners. Unlike many of the other Southern stars of his moment, Luda wasn’t a drug dealer looking for a route to legal money. He’d always wanted to make music. His culture was different. Luda’s lyrics didn’t include arcane criminal lingo. Instead, he covered classic rap subjects: Sex, money, partying, being good at rapping, making people eat dirt and fart dust. You didn’t need any context to understand him.
Maybe that’s why Ludacris was such a good fit on a New York-centric label like Def Jam. Lyor Cohen would’ve presumably had a whole lot more trouble selling Three 6 Mafia or Lil Boosie to America. Luda didn’t have those issues. But Luda also understood how to work on a Southern beat, and he trumpeted his Southern identity as loudly as he could. Def Jam took almost all the tracks from Incognegro and released them as Back For The First Time, the proper debut album that turns 20 years old tomorrow. This was the right thing to do with Ludacris. Def Jam only made one big change: They brought in Virginia Beach producers the Neptunes, who were just beginning their years-long hot streak, to produce the new single “Southern Hospitality,” a small masterpiece of giddy shit-talk.
It worked. It all worked. “What’s Your Fantasy” reached #21 on the Hot 100. “Southern Hospitality” made it to #23. More to the point, those songs were everywhere, playing loud at every party and dominating every 106 & Park countdown. Back For The First Time debuted at #4 and eventually sold three million copies. I bought one of those three million, and I remember having my head spun around by this thing. Here was a major-label rap album that didn’t play around with R&B hooks or bids for radio ubiquity. Ludacris never got serious or introspective. It was just one long series of relentlessly fun songs — banger after banger after banger. I loved it. Still do.
Ludacris followed up Back For The First Time with his sophomore album Word Of Mouf just over a year later, and he was a relentless major-label professional over the next decade. In 10 years, he released seven albums, landed at #1 a couple of times, briefly made a star of chirpy St. Louis rapper Chingy, and introduced the world to Tity Boi, the towering goofball who would later make the wise decision to start calling himself 2 Chainz.
But Luda never again tried to equal the energy he’d captured on Back For The First Time. Instead, starting with Missy Elliott’s “One Minute Man” and Lil Jon & The East Side Boyz’ “Bia Bia” in 2001, Luda became an absolute guest-verse assassin — a guy who could vastly improve any song by showing up, shouting 16 bars of horny and endlessly quotable one-liners, and then leave. Nobody could do that better.
For years, I wondered why Luda’s own records fell so flat while he still brought the fire on other people’s songs. But Luda had already done that for himself. That was Back For The First Time. It was a moment, and it was not repeatable. After that, Ludacris had to attend to the business of rap stardom. Then he found something even more sustainable than that. These days, Luda still makes records, but he doesn’t have to. Every couple of years, he can show up in another Fast & Furious movie. Ludacris had a plan 20 years ago, and he still has one now.