November 06, 2006 12:00 PM

Talk about suffering for your art. “Y’all want to hear me rap?” asked Kevin Federline. He stood, quite bravely, before a raucous crowd of wrestling fans, gathered for the WWE Monday Night RAW event at L.A.’s Staples Center on Oct. 16. Federline had signed on to be the celebrity punching bag. To a chorus of boos, he taunted back, “Well, you are going to have to wait!”—and summarily got slammed to the canvas by bruiser John Cena.

Say this much for Britney Spears‘s other half: He is willing to go to the mat to promote—and defend—his debut album, Playing with Fire. “If you want to hate me, cool, hate me,” Federline, 28, tells PEOPLE. “You know why? Because all it’s going to do is help me.”

Relaxing in an L.A. club, a Yankees cap on his shorn head, his trademark “K-Fed” gold medallion around his neck and a silver Ferrari in the parking lot, Federline is living the hip-hop dream he has nurtured ever since he was a working-class teenager hanging out at the Rainbow Ballroom dance club in downtown Fresno, Calif. And it’s a dream fully supported, he says, by Spears, 24. “I know who I am,” says Federline, who adds that he goes to his pop-star wife for advice. “All I can be is honest. That’s what our relationship is.” And despite frequent reports of marital discord since they married in 2004, Federline insists, “Our relationship is strong…. We are going to last a long time.”

Now, however, he’s on a campaign to prove there’s more to him than being Britney Spears‘s husband. While Spears was partying with friends in Las Vegas without him last week, Federline was hitting the clubs during L.A. fashion week and promoting his music on The Tonight Show. On the album, he says, the public will see his “edgy side.” And he’s proud of his acting debut last month, when he played a street tough—a role inspired by him—on CSI. “I shocked myself,” he says. “There were parts that I wish I would have done different, but there are parts that really took me, like, Wow, did I do that? I looked at myself and I was like, It looked good. It looked perfect.”

He’s not about to let his notoriety go to waste. He was just 18 when he arrived in L.A. and became a dancer “at the bottom of the food chain,” he recalls. “There’s nobody that gets less credit than somebody dancing.” Before he met Spears, he danced backup for LFO, Pink and Destiny’s Child. After that experience, “I can tell in 10 minutes after talking to you whether you’re going to mess with me or not.” Fame finally caught up with him in 2004, when he began dating Spears while his ex-girlfriend Shar Jackson was pregnant. “At first we thought [the media storm] would just be quick and go away and leave us alone and let us live our life,” he says. “Obviously, we were wrong.”

Federline is now a father of four; he and Jackson have two children, Kori, 4, and Kaleb, 2. His first child with Spears, Sean Preston, is a year old, and on Sept. 12 Spears gave birth to their second son, Jayden James. Asked about his extended family, he says, “Everything is wonderful. Everybody’s healthy. Everybody’s doing good.” With each birth, “it gets less and less stressful.” Still, it’s fatherhood that has made him restless, intent on wrestling with his dreams of stardom. “It’s just time to get my stuff down while they’re young,” he says, “so I can sit back and watch them grow up.”

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