When the history of Southern rap is written, it will inevitably focus, rightly, on UGK and Geto Boys, OutKast and Goodie Mob, 2 Live Crew and Three 6 Mafia, artists who took the molasses flow of Southern heat, the legacy of blues and soul and the unique patterns of Southern club music, and translated them into an entirely new vernacular of hip-hop. It should also focus on the world-dominating artists too voluminous to mention here that made Southern rap the dominant sound of rap music this century, to the point where even Canadian superstars have to ask Atlanta rappers to help bolster their hits.

But there’s a missing link in that evolutionary chart, that onward Sherman’s March toward sonic progress, a rapper who, after the singular and unprecedented success of OutKast, proved Southern rap’s chart dominance was no passing fad, no exception to the rule. He made music meant for tearing up clubs and rolling blunts, with a voice as booming and clear as it was when he was reading ad copy as a radio DJ and beats as unpredictable as Swisher guts falling into the crevices of your car’s upholstery. He would be, for a time, undoubtedly one of the biggest rappers on earth, and his second album would top the Billboard rap charts, and hit No. 3 on the pop, leaving only a rapper named Eminem above him as the best-selling rapper of 2002.

His outfits in the club were ridiculous and so conspicuous, and his name was Ludacris.

For a guy who made maybe the definitive Atlanta party song, “Welcome to Atlanta” — a bonus track on the CD version of Word of Mouf — it might surprise you to learn that Ludacris didn’t actually grow up in Atlanta. He was born in 1977 in Champaign, Illinois, a city whose musical output is mostly limited to REO Speedwagon and Alison Krauss. He’d move to Chicago for middle school, and spend a year in high school in Virginia (just down the interstate from where the Neptunes and Missy Elliott and Timbaland and Magoo were inventing their own vision of Southern hip-hop) before matriculating at Banneker High.

When Ludacris arrived in Atlanta in the early ’90s, the city’s potential as a rap hub was in its nascent stages. Jermaine Dupri and his satellites of briefly famous pop-rap stars (like Kriss Kross and Da Brat) were active, and so was a local kid named Usher Raymond, in the early stages of morphing into a world-conquering R&B and pop star. There was no indication back then that Southern rap could become the behemoth it would be.

If Atlanta was the world, Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik (VMP Hip-Hop No. 22) was the Big Bang, the first Southern rap album that could not be written off by the coastal rap elites as simulacrum of NYC or L.A., the work laid down by UGK and Geto Boys in the early ’90s flourishing in the distinct rhythms and rhymes of André 3000 and Big Boi. The group was so singular that no Atlanta group could hope to be like them, but Big and Dré had cracked open a hole wide enough for four lanes of I-85-worth of rappers to drive on through. First came Goodie Mob and the Dungeon Family, and renewed interest in UGK, who’d moved to town — and whose 1996 album Ridin’ Dirty might as well be the ur-text of Southern gangsta rap — and brought about the creation of Def Jam South, a rare acknowledgement by the legacy NYC rap powerhouse that things were happening outside of the five boroughs. At the helm of that imprint was Scarface of the Geto Boys himself, who started touring the South as a roving A&R.

Scarface would eventually find his way to Chris “Lova Lova,” a radio DJ from Atlanta’s burgeoning rap station, Hot 97.5. In the intervening years since OutKast made Atlanta one of rap’s epicenters, Chris Bridges had interned and become an on-air talent at the radio station, and in the tapes that exist on YouTube of his DJ days, you can hear the later hallmarks of his vocal stylings; the double time, smashing a Waffle House All-Star Special flow, the peaks and valleys between a guttural whisper and a boisterous bellow, him coming in and out of beats on time like a car changing lanes in gridlock. He’d play all of Atlanta’s favorites — Q-Tip’s “Vivrant Thing,” a Dilla-co-produced track that owed a lot to Southern rap boogie, and Jermaine Dupri and Jay-Z’s “Money Ain’t a Thang,” which is like the Ghost in the Machine for early ’00s Atlanta rap — and workshop his own music in his spare time.

"It’d eventually be Ludacris’ best-selling album. But what’s most remarkable about the album, these 20 years removed from its release, is how it was able to subtly synthesize 10 years of Southern rap into one album and be a vital part of its sustained pop breakthrough."

It would take a call from Timbaland for Chris to ditch the Lova and get Luda, however. In 1998, riding the first wave of his production fame for Missy Elliott and beginning his work with Aaliyah, Timbaland was signed to produce a solo LP that would become Tim’s Bio: Life From da Bassment. It’s an interesting curio from that era of rap, but it’s arguably most famous for being the debut of Ludacris, as Chris Bridges fully became his rap alter ego on “Phat Rabbit,” when Tim invited the Atlanta DJ to debut as an MC. His vocal stylings were singular, and unique to him; he could be funny, he could be menacing, he could stomp mudholes in beats, or he could float on them.

“Phat Rabbit” became a modest hit in Atlanta, and gave Ludacris the final push he needed to make his first full release, Incognegro. It featured production from Jermaine Dupri, Organized Noize — of OutKast fame — and featured the first major productions from a producer who’d alter Southern rap over the ’00s, Bangladesh. Ludacris couldn’t get signed to any label for Incognegro’s release, so he opted to release it himself on his own Disturbing Tha Peace imprint. It seemed like Luda might be one of a series of Atlanta heroes who never blew up outside the outskirts of Decatur. But then one of Incognegro’s final cuts, “What’s Your Fantasy,” started to gain traction locally, and after Scarface heard Incognegro on one of his scouting trips, he signed Disturbing Tha Peace to Def Jam South, had Luda quickly rework some of Incognegro’s songs, and had him hit the studio with the Neptunes (“Southern Hospitality”). It all led to 2000’s Back for the First Time, Luda’s proper major-label debut. It launched Ludacris into the national consciousness, and “What’s Your Fantasy” would soundtrack many lascivious middle school dances in 2000 and beyond. The album peaked at No. 4 on the pop charts and No. 2 on the rap charts, eventually going triple-Platinum. It was a stunning success for a guy who, 18 months earlier, was reading ad copy for car dealerships. But it paled in comparison to what came next.

Word of Mouf. It’s a title that feels like a BBQ plate with two starchy sides in your, well, mouf; both a description for the fame of the rapper who named it and a play on what he was doing here. Recorded, produced and conceived in the 18 months between Incognegro and its reshuffling into Back for the First Time, Word of Mouf would bring Ludacris even more completely to the masses; its four powerhouse singles would introduce multiple phrases to our collective lexicon (“I got hoes in different area codes,” “Roll out” and I’d wager most of us heard “sticky icky” for the first time on “Saturday (Oooh! Oooh!)”) and be filled with big boasts and even bigger beats.

Word of Mouf’s arrival was announced in the summer of 2001 with pre-release single “Area Codes,” a song destined forever to be a classic at millennial karaoke nights, thanks to its rattling off of area codes — 43 in all! — and its shouts to basically every locale in America in which Ludacris might feasibly have a concert. But what makes the song iconic is not just its hilarious onslaught of digits, but a glacé hook from Nate Dogg, who, aside from being on “Regulate,” was maybe never this in his whole entire bag. Listening to Nate Dogg harmonize with himself on this is one of life’s finest pleasures. Savor it here.

Arriving a month before the album proper, “Rollout (My Business)” was something entirely different, and a mode Luda would return to throughout his career: the big, towering bomb track, a controlled detonation via Timbaland’s brass section, a King Kong rampage through a MARTA line. It’s also an incredible advertisement for Ludacris as a rapper; he’s both within and without the beat, firing like Al Pacino in Scarface at times, and speaking low and slow like a preacher at others.

Those two forms — the comedic loverman and the powerman with the big boasts — would form the backbone of Word of Mouf when it was released in November 2001. It was an immediate smash, as it debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard pop charts, and No. 1 on the rap charts, selling close to 300,000 copies in its first week. It’d eventually be Ludacris’ best-selling album.

But what’s most remarkable about the album, these 20 years removed from its release, is how it was able to subtly synthesize 10 years of Southern rap into one album and be a vital part of its sustained pop breakthrough. Ludacris worked with multiple generations of Southern rap producers on Word of Mouf: in addition to Timbaland on “Rollout,” there’s Organized Noize on two tracks, and No Limit’s KLC, and then there’s Bangladesh on four tracks, and two from Jazze Pha, son of Bar-Kay James Alexander, who’d later sign Ciara and produce for a who’s who of Southern R&B and rap. A young upstart producer named P. King even sampled Atlanta-resident and soul legend William Bell’s “I Forgot to Be Your Lover” for “Growing Pains.”

Word of Mouf’s fourth single, “Move Bitch,” would prove to be its biggest, not only in form, but in chart performance, as it was Ludacris’ first top-10 hit. With a beat produced by KLC that sounds cleverly repurposed from Danny Elfman’s score for the dream sequences from Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, it’s like that “Let them fight” scene from Godzilla in rap form. Joined by a delirious Mystikal and I-20, it’s an aural curb-stomping, a song that could only become a top-10 hit after its excessive radio edits, and in that era in early 2002 when most Americans were looking for songs they could express their rage alongside.

But the most endlessly perfect song on Word of Mouf is “Saturday (Oooh! Oooh!),” a rattling and jangly Organized Noize-produced track that captures the endless possibilities of waking up on Saturday morning with nothing on your docket but catching the sun and a contact high. It’s also a clearinghouse for weed metaphors, supplying potential stoners more lingo than they’d need in a lifetime. Along with the video for “Rollout,” the music video for “Saturday” cemented the Ludacris visual palette going forward: No one made music videos as consistently psychedelic and dysmorphic as Ludacris at his peak.

Word of Mouf is more than its four singles and its William Bell sample, of course, but those singles are so towering that they’d be sure to be the meat of a Ludacris greatest hits comp. But for the album’s shagginess beyond its singles and its better-in-a-time-capsule skits, there are punishing album tracks like “Get the Fuck Back” and hilarious punchline trapeze acts like “Coming 2 America” and “Cry Babies (Oh No).” It’s a snapshot of a rapper hitting his peak and cementing the geographical legacy of Atlanta rap. If Ludacris could crash the charts during peak boy band-era, T.I. and Young Jeezy could, too. Ludacris crawled so Lil Baby could walk.

A few months after “Move Bitch” was released as a single, Ludacris would find himself in Bill O’Reilly’s crosshairs, as the distended pundit decided that Pepsi choosing Luda as a pitchman was some insult to common decency. O’Reilly delighted in Pepsi firing Ludacris, but Luda would have the last laugh: In 2003 Ludacris starred in 2 Fast 2 Furious, replacing Ja Rule. In 2021, Ludacris is slated to appear in the film’s ninth edition, and Bill O’Reilly isn’t on television.

Ludacris would follow up Word of Mouf with Chicken -N- Beer in 2003 and The Red Light District in 2004, both albums that debuted on top of the Billboard pop charts, his transition to megastar done and dusted. But his climb reached its peak on Word of Mouf, a showboating high step into the endzone that is the top.

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