LOS ANGELES – Let's face it, Kevin Federline is pretty much a walking punchline. But when you meet him in person, surprise: he's soft-spoken, he looks you in the eye and he seems grounded, if a little out of touch.
The 28-year-old says he's more than just a tabloid target: He's a working father of four dedicated to developing himself as an artist.
"That's like the big transition, how I can get people to relate to that," Federline says thoughtfully while dragging on a Marlboro Light outside a Hollywood TV studio. "They're thinking about the family life and K-Fed and all this stuff, he's living off her and blah, blah, blah. They don't know that I paid for my own album and I paid my way. I paid my dues to be able to do this."
Federline took a dance-strewn route to his rap dreams, working as a backup dancer for artists including Pink, Destiny's Child, 'N Sync and Michael Jackson.
But the Fresno, Calif., native says music "was always in the back of my mind since I was young." It's just that breakdancing was big when he was a boy, he explains, so he learned the moves. Then he heard he could make money doing it. The middle child in a family of six, Federline moved to Los Angeles nine years ago to work as a dancer and found success almost immediately.
He was still dancing — and dating former girlfriend Shar Jackson — when he and Spears fell in love in 2004, something Federline says he "never expected."
"I was never interested in (her) that way," he says. "It was always just whatever to me."
The two first met when Federline was 20 and Spears was 16, he says. When they reconnected a few years later, "it was one of those love-at-first-sight type deals," he says.
"I've been in relationships since I was 13 years old so I know what I want. Her personality and her attitude and all that stuff, it really works. I don't know how sometimes, but it really works."
Jackson gave birth to Federline's son, Kaleb, in July 2004. Spears and Federline wed two months later. (He and Jackson also have a daughter, Kori, 4.)
Their romance seemed to both horrify and amuse the nation. The idea that America's favorite pop princess would take up with a chain-smoking background dancer who was already in a relationship was grist for plenty of gossip columns; the couple's wild exploits (some of which were captured for a UPN reality show) just made their relationship more of a target.
Shortly after marrying Spears, Federline turned his attention to making music — seemingly giving credence to critics who claimed he was using Spears to further his own fame.
When his wife got pregnant a few months into their marriage, Federline began building a recording studio in their Malibu mansion. He started working on his album as soon as their son, Sean Preston, was born.
The home studio allowed him to be near the baby while he figured out how to make a record, he says.
"I just wasn't very familiar with putting songs together. So I took a good seven-month lesson and went on my way after that."
He brought in writer-producers such as Kanye West collaborator Bosko and Jonathan "J.R." Rotem, who has worked with Rhianna and 50 Cent.
The result? Thirteen thumping tracks of K-Fed on K-Fed. He brags about his wealth ("One earring costs more than your budget"), postures about his rhyming skills ("When this emcee cocks the hammer you can't touch me"), and takes repeated swipes at the media for treating him "unjustly" and "sabotaging" his name. Spears joins in for one track.
In an interview, though, Federline insists that the incessant media attention doesn't bother him. He says the tabloids' take on him as a party-loving bad boy is all wrong.
"Say what you want," he says. "I know who I am."
And that, he says, is a family man. When it comes to his two sons with Spears, he changes diapers and doles out the discipline. (The couple's second son was born in September but they have yet to announce his name and Federline didn't want to talk about it.)
"I've already slapped a couple of fingers and done all that," Federline says. "I'm going to be as close to how my parents were with me as I possibly can because I think they did a good job."
Federline's mechanic dad and bank-teller mom were generous with both love and discipline, he says, adding that they taught him that it's best not to give children everything they want.
"I don't believe in spoiled-ness at all," he says.
Federline arrived for this interview in a silver Ferrari, wearing an oversized T-shirt and white shorts accessorized with button-sized diamond stud earrings and two rope-thick gold chains. It's just one stop on his two-month promotional tour. Federline is also preparing for a monthlong round of concerts that start Nov. 4 in New York.
"He's working harder than any other new artist out there," says manager Dan Dymtrow. "He's not taking any of this for granted."
Promoting the album means spending a lot of time away from home, away from his wife and children. But Federline says it's worth it.
"It's a sacrifice that you have to make. I want my children to look up to me. I don't want them to be like, `Oh, daddy's around all the time, you know, he's not doing nothing ever.' I want them to know what it's like to have to work hard and get the big payoff at the end."
Federline's payoff will be proving that he's more than just a well-kept husband. He says he feels like he's "coming from behind" and has "a lot of opinions to change and a lot of heads to turn." He's relying on the music for that.
"He's smarter than most people think," Dymtrow says. "He's building a whole new persona of who he really is."
Federline plans to release a follow-up record next year, an album that "caters to women," who, he says, comprise his primary audience. Then he'll be ready to relax in his favorite way: with a "Jack and Coke" and a cigarette, maybe a nice game of golf.
"I'm going to keep going all the way through until I'm 30," he says. "Then I'm really going to sit back and take some time off."