Rapper Ludacris shows serious side on album

ImageThe shorn locks provide a clue to rapper Ludacris' new musical direction.

The buzzed-about braid-free 'do he sports while criss-crossing the country to promote his upcoming album "Release Therapy" is a mini-me version of his trademark towering Afro.

"The haircut is partly because I've had braids for 10 years and done every braid style two and three times over," a chilled-out and contemplative Ludacris said with a laugh during a recent interview. "But it's also part of my evolution, the whole idea of release therapy. The entire album is therapeutic to me and hopefully to whoever listens to it."

Ludacris (real name: Chris Bridges) will release his fifth solo album on September 26. It marks his first CD since 2004's "Red Light District," although a burgeoning film career ("Crash," "Hustle & Flow") has kept him in the spotlight.

Intent on sharing more of what motivates the person behind his various alter egos -- rapper, actor, entrepreneur and philanthropist -- the former Atlanta radio DJ reassures that the witty, animated style and bouncy, Southern-fried tracks that took him to the forefront of the "Dirty South" hip-hop movement are still part of the mix.

Thus, party- and girl-happy tracks like lead single "Money Maker" featuring Pharrell, which is currently at No. 61 on the Hot 100, and "Girls Gone Wild" are tempered by more introspective songs like "Do Your Time," about the social implications of incarceration, and "Freedom of Preach," Ludacris' conversation with God.

One of the most emotional tracks is "Runaway Love." Featuring Mary J. Blige, the song addresses the sometimes overwhelming life pressures that many kids endure, be it from peers or their family environment.

Other collaborators on the album include R. Kelly, Field Mob and Young Jeezy. Ludacris experiments musically as well, dabbling in pop and rock elements and an organ-driven southern blues feel.

The rapper originally chose the title "Release Therapy" because his five-album deal with Def Jam was up and he had the option of leaving. But coincidentally, "It was also time for me to release as well. I'm really getting a lot of stuff off my chest (on this album); something my career has been leading up to. You get to a phase where you want to try new things."

(Ludacris renewed his Def Jam contract last year but declined to disclose the length of the deal.)

While Ludacris "doesn't let too many people into his world," according to co-manager Jeff Dixon, he has set up a busy promotional schedule of listening parties, in-store appearances, a concert tour, TV talk-show visits and interviews.

Such a grind may seem more in keeping with a developing act. However, nothing can be taken for granted these days when it comes to music sales. Although "Red Light District" sold 2 million copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan, it paled against 2000's "Back for the First Time" (3.1 million), 2001's "Word of Mouf" (3.6 million) and 2003's "Chicken*N*Beer" (2.6 million).

Given the aggressive push and the current sales climate, Dixon says they are aiming for "that pop radio/top 40 lock" and hope to sell more than 500,000 units the first week. Ludacris' biggest debut, "Chicken*N*Beer," moved 430,000 first-week units; "Red Light" came in at 322,000.

Carl Mello, senior buyer for the Newbury Comics chain, says a robust first week is all but guaranteed. What happens after that will "depend on whether the single crosses over. It could go either way; I don't know if the movies help or hurt."

Over the years, rappers-turned-actors have encountered various ups and downs with their music careers. In some cases, their acting success has eclipsed their rap personas (Will Smith). In others, an argument could be made that film work helped sustain their recording careers (LL Cool J). The that Ludacris has garnered critical and popular acclaim through roles in "Crash," "Hustle & Flow" and TV's "Law & Order: SVU."

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