I was scheduled to meet with Federline a week ago, when reports surfaced that L.A. County's Department of Children and Family Services had paid the Spears-Federline household a visit after the couple's 6-month-old baby, Sean Preston, was treated for a skull fracture. Federline's manager calls me that morning and tells me to stand by. "There's a tabloid problem."
Later that evening, Federline meets me in the lobby of the Fairmont Miramar Hotel in Santa Monica, shaking his head and saying, "There's always a tabloid problem." He suggests we go for a drive before dinner so he can lay me his new tracks, and as we pull out the porte cochere he says, "When we first got together, she lived across the street. We used to hide out at the hotel to throw off the paparazzi." ("She," "her," "my wife," "my old lady" - he almost never uses her name.) He pops in a CD and fiddles with the stereo. "I don't know how this shit works," he says. "The car's a rental. We get rentals because the paparazzi know our cars. We're getting a new one tomorrow. This one's been made." He cracks the window and lights up a Marlboro Light. "This song is called 'Rock Star,'" he says.
Over the thumping base Federline tells me, "I know people call me Vanilla Ice." He's stopped reading the tabloids, he says, but he doesn't live in a bubble. He saw the Conan O'Brien sketch in which James Lipton recited the lyrics to "PopoZao" in a dramatic monologue. (Federline loved it, though he doesn't know who James Lipton is.) He was less appreciative of a skit Ashton Kutcher did on Saturday Night Live, a commercial for "Federline briefs: man panties for wiggers." "If you're gonna come at me with some comedy shit, boy, you better come with it real good," he says. "Hopefully, one day I'll get to do a skit about his ass on Saturday Night Live. Maybe that'll be my acting debut." (Yes, he wants to act. Federline told his agents at ICM that he was concentrating on the music, but they recently sent him a script he liked. "I'd be playing a gangster-drug-dealer-type dude," he says. But then he got sick on the day of the audition.)
As for the album, he has been working on it for nearly a year. He recorded some early tracks with Disco D, a 25-year-old wunderkind producer from Michigan. And he's now hooked up with a guy called Bosco, who's worked with Kanye West, and a young artist named Ya Boy, out of the Bay Area. ("Ya Boy," he says. "It's a perfect name. People are like, 'What's your boy's name?' I'm like, 'Ya Boy.' They're like, 'I know he's your boy, but what's his name?' I'm like, 'Ya Boy.'")
He doesn't have a record deal, though he says he's turned down offers. He's looking for a fifty-fifty split, he tells me, one that would get him his own label (which he'd call Federation Records), plus the marketing push of one of the majors - the kind of deal Dr. Dre might get. "Any money they want to give me up front," he says, "I want them to put into the project. We'll make it back together. I'm gonna make so much fucking money on the back end, it's gonna be ridiculous."
His manager - who takes pains to tell me Federline's a perfectionist - gave him a June 1 deadline to complete the album. So Federline sat in the studio and went through forty tracks he'd recorded, trying to narrow them down to the ten or twelve that would make the album. "There's a lot of stuff I want to recut," he says. "I just cut a record last night. I listened to it this morning, and it sounds like I'm reading a piece of paper. I can hear it in my voice." Still, he's confident that he's breaking new ground. "I'm the first white boy bringing the West Coast sound," he says. "It's gonna be huge. I'm doing shit not even Eminem does."
Federline laid down many of the tracks in his home recording studio. That way he could pop in and say hello to the baby. "I spend almost all of my money from Chaotic building the studio," he says. (Chaotic was a five-episode reality show on UPN, Frankensteined together with home videos that he and Britney shot on her Onyx Hotel Tour.) "I don't rely on my wife's money," he says. "I don't get any money from my wife." He tells me he made $2 million on the show, most of which he's spend. The first thing he bought was a $200,000 engagement ring for his wife. Then he spent $350,000 building the home studio. And bought his truck. "I'm almost broke," he says. As for the Ferrari he drives (the one with the brake calipers that say FEDERLINE in place of FERRARI), he and his wife split the cost. "As a man, as a male figure and a father, I wouldn't be happy sitting back and living off my wife's fortune," he goes on. "I have to provide for my family. That's something she's had to learn about me." This sounds honorable enough, and while only the IRS knows for sure whether he's telling the truth, I'm inclined to believe him. It's not exactly hard-core for an aspiring rap star to admit he and his wife went Dutch on the Ferrari.
We pass the jewelry store where he recently bought the gold watch he's wearing. "It's a one-of-a-kind piece," he says. "It's not like I just look for the watch that has the most diamonds or gold. There's watches that they have in there that are worth $150,000 that have no diamonds on them. None at all. There's one, it's got three Roman dudes in it that hit a bell. The first one is for the hour - if it hits twice, it's two o'clock. This whole thing runs with no battery, no nothing. Certain things like that amaze me. Like chess. I love playing chess. I don't know why."
Federline stops at a yellow light, cracks the window, and lights another cigarette. ("This is the worst addiction ever," he'll tell me later, as Jimmy and Eddie and Big Mike get on his case about how much he's smoking. "To me, it's probably the equivalent of someone being addicted to heroin." When Jimmy tells him that he should do hypnosis, Federline agrees. "I'm gonna try that," he says. "Matt Damon did it.") He's not allowed to smoke in the house, and, he says, "I won't smoke around my kids. I never have." When I point out that there are plenty of photos of him smoking in front of his kids, he says, "If I'm outside, I always make sure I watch where the smoke travels in the wind."