It's Super Bowl weekend, and Ludacris is onstage at Miami's Fontainebleau hotel, where he's co-hosting a pool party with NFL stars Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens. At the moment, though, no one is looking at the Atlanta rapper. All eyes-including Ludacris'-are firmly fixed on the two female fans pop, lock and dropping it to his current top 10 single, "How Low." A camera catches the enthusiastic booty-shakers in action, and before Drew Brees can book a ticket to Disneyland, the video is a viral sensation.
"They're going extremely low," Ludacris says with a laugh. "I love the fact that my fans are able to make the song their own." The clip in question is just one of the homemade "How Low" videos available on YouTube. That's no accident; "Battle of the Sexes," his seventh studio set, is due March 9 on Disturbing Tha Peace/Def Jam.
The hyper-speed wordplay and house-influenced surges of "How Low" command the listener to dance. In the 10 weeks since the song debuted at No. 13 on the Billboard Hot 100, the T-Minus-produced track has sold 984,000 downloads, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
"Outside of the natural impact and excitement around the record, I think hip-hop needed that injection of energy," Ludacris' manager Chaka Zulu says. "There were a lot of extremely alternative or pop hip-hop records on the radio, but no pure hip-hop records with dance energy."
Originally conceived as a collaboration with female rapper Shawnna, "Battle of the Sexes" was restructured as a Ludacris album with a host of featured artists after a rift with her team. "It became bad business," Zulu says. "We broadened the concept and opened it up to have his friends appear on the album."
Those friends include a host of female MCs-such as Lil Kim, Eve, Trina and Diamond of Crime Mob-as well as Flo Rida, Gucci Mane, Ne-Yo and Trey Songz. "Hey Ho" featuring Lil Kim addresses double standards, while "Sex Room" featuring Songz recalls "Lovers and Friends," Ludacris' No. 1 hit with Usher and Lil Jon.
"It's definitely reminiscent of that," the rapper says. "I want to remind people of all the things they love about Ludacris."
The second single, "My Chick Bad" featuring Nicki Minaj, shipped to radio last week, and the song's video will premiere Feb. 19 on BET's "106th & Park." Ludacris will appear on the show the week of release.
"Battle of the Sexes" follows Ludacris' 2008 album, "Theater of the Mind," which moved 671,000 copies. Although sales were solid, the album wasn't as acclaimed as 2006's "Release Therapy," which sold 1.3 million and won a Grammy Award for best rap album.
The enthusiastic response to "How Low" drove Def Jam to push the "Battle of the Sexes" release date up by one week to take advantage of the track's momentum and other promotional opportunities. Ludacris is currently appearing weekly on "Sprite Step Off," an MTV2 series about the college stepping scene that he co-hosted and executive-produced, and opening for the Black Eyed Peas. "He's performing for 10,000-15,000 people a night," Def Jam senior VP of marketing Chris Atlas says. "You couldn't ask for a better opportunity to get in front of people."
Atlas says Ludacris is booked for national TV appearances that specifically target his female fan base, from BET's "The Mo'Nique Show" and the E! network's "Chelsea Lately" to NBC's "The Ellen DeGeneres Show."
In addition, a "House of Conjure" listening party was held for VIPs and tastemakers in Miami and sponsored by Conjure, Ludacris' new brand of cognac. Def Jam plans to repeat the event in other markets, including Dallas, leading up to release.
For fans, a more formal effort to recruit viral videos has been set up at DanceJam.com, where users can submit videos of themselves dancing to "How Low" and compete for a signed copy of "Battle of the Sexes," a phone call from Ludacris and a trip to his official album release party in Atlanta.
So far, though, fans haven't needed those perks to show how low they can go, and the rapper says their excitement has driven him to focus on music in 2010. (In the years since his breakout film roles in 2004's "Crash" and 2005's "Hustle & Flow," he has divided his time almost equally between music and acting.)
"I'm still just as passionate about music as the first day I began," says Ludacris, who has already begun recording a new album, tentatively titled "Ludaversal," for fourth-quarter release. "Wait till I come out with even more over the next year. I'm going harder."