Looking like a spoiled kid forced to sit in on his dad's business meeting, DeAndre "Soulja Boy Tell'em" Way slumps in a black leather chair at Billboard's New York offices, twiddling his thumbs on his two-way. He's distracted.
With BlackBerry in hand, the 18-year-old rapper/producer sports a bright yellow baseball hat with a baby blue hair pick halfway tucked underneath it, a yellow and blue track jacket atop an oversized white tee, matching Yums Soulja Boy Block Star sneakers -- more on that later -- and a diamond-encrusted chain and wrist cuff.
He laughs out loud at an incoming message, then looks up at his best friend, Arab, who is smirking back at him. The two have tuned out the dialogue around them, leaving Soulja Boy's manager, Derrick Crooms, to handle the matters at hand. They are having their own chukle-worthy conversation with their mobile devices, and they don't plan on letting anyone else in on the joke.
It's easy to dismiss Soulja Boy as a run-of-the-mill teenager, but appearances can be deceiving. His breakthrough was due in part to his Internet fame and many consider him a Web-savvy business prodigy.
By the time Soulja Boy signed to Collipark/Interscope Records last summer, he'd already garnered an unfathomable online following from his YouTube channel and MySpace page. "I was one of the first artists to have a YouTube account, if not the first. I joined two months after the site launched," Soulja Boy says. "I faked it until I made it. I acted like I was a celebrity. I was signing autographs, taking pictures, but I had no record deal. I was living the life of a star, but I was just a regular kid then."
Soulja Boy then released "Crank That," the top-selling digital track of 2007, according to Nielsen SoundScan, which at 3.9 million digital copies sold is the third-biggest song download since such data started being tracked in 2003. He's gone on to sell 943,000 copies of his debut album, "SouljaBoyTellEm," making him one of the few artists to sell this many digital singles and also sell a decent amount of physical copies of an album. When it comes to ringtones, "Crank That" has tallied 2.4 million, according to Nielsen RingScan (see chart, above).
"He's a smart kid," Crooms says. "Change in the music industry always comes with resistance, but he handles it all very well. He understands this business more than most grown men I know."
Soulja Boy is using this savvy to promote his sophomore set, "iSouljaBoyTellEm," out Dec. 16 from Collipark/Interscope Records. Producers Mr. Collipark, Polow Da Don and Drumma Boy helmed tracks for the set, while T.I., Shawty Lo, Sean Kingston, Yo Gotti and Gucci Mane—who Soulja Boy calls his mentor—make guest appearances.
The first single, the dance-inspired "Birdwalk," sold 10,000 downloads as of early December. "I'm just beginning to work the song—it always starts from the bottom up," Soulja Boy says about the so-far modest sales. "People didn't see the groundwork that went into 'Crank That,' they just saw the success and sales. It probably won't take as long with 'Birdwalk,' but it will still take a little time."
The accompanying video, directed by Erik White, was filmed at Morris Brown College in Atlanta—the same place where the footage for "Crank That" was shot—during a battle of the bands. Soulja Boy has participated in various battles, which consist of a competition between two bands from two different colleges, during which he performs "Birdwalk." "It takes place on Sundays and we have over 30,000 people out there at a time," he says.
Other tracks on the album include promotional single "Turn My Swag On," where Soulja Boy addresses the "haters" over double-speed drums and a heavy bassline. On "Easy" Soulja Boy calls himself "Soulja Boy Pacino" and "Soulja Boy Mandigo" with flutes in the background. Chris Brown wrote the boastful "Yamaha Mama" ("My neck taste like chocolate/Now take a lick," Soulja Boy rhymes atop piano riffs), and second single "Kiss Me Thru the Phone," featuring Sammie and produced by Jim Jonsin, has Soulja Boy rapping alongside a videogame-like beat about longing for a lover.
Soulja Boy launched a Let's Go Platinum in One Week campaign through his various online portals, where he's telling fans to "get ready for the album and help me go platinum," he says. "I go by the motto that it's never enough money. When I was 16, I said I wanted to become a millionaire. When I got my first million, I wanted more. Now that I've gone platinum with my first album, I want to break that in a week this time around. No one's done it since [Lil] Wayne [who did it with the "Tha Carter III" in June of this year]. If I go 100% and grind, I think it's possible."
Last month, Soulja Boy launched an animated/live-action cartoon, by the creators of Adult Swim's "Robot Chicken," on his Web site. He plays a celebrity teenager that has to go back to class and finish the school year. Soulja Boy, Arab and friend Jabar are animated characters, while the rest of the cast, including Alfonso Ribeiro—who played Carlton in "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" and here portrays the school principal—are actors. Soulja Boy hopes a TV network will pick up the series and is targeting Comedy Central or Cartoon Network.
On MTV, Soulja Boy has an episode of "Super Sweet 16" dubbed "My Super Swag 18," covering the celebration of his 18th birthday that took place during the summer. He hopes to branch out into acting through the William Morris Agency, and although he hasn't come across a script he's interested in—"I'm a comedic person. I want my first movie role to reflect my actual personality"—he hopes to delve further into it in 2009.
He began a promotional tour Dec. 1 that lead up to the album release, and a more extensive mid-January trek is in the works. For the latter, Soulja Boy hopes to partner with fellow rapper Bow Wow, for whom he recently produced the track "Marco Polo."
Now, about those kicks. Soulja Boy recently launched a sneaker called the Soulja Boy Block Star sneaker and a Soulja Boy clothing line with the apparel company Yums. He partnered with Yums' in-house designer Tex for the venture and also bought stock in the company.
"I was on the Chris Brown tour with Bow Wow last year, and we had a concert stop in Dallas, Texas. I brought out a local Texas act called Lil Will onstage with me, but when we were backstage I noticed they had these shoes and these hats," Soulja Boy says. "I asked them where they got it from because I wanted to get some. So, I hooked up with the owner, I told him what I wanted to do, we did a deal and after that it's been Yums ever since."
Other Soulja Boy ventures are generating revenue already. "Really, I don't depend on royalty checks to make money. Those only come but every six months," he says. "How I make most money is from shows. I get up to $75,000 for each, and I might do up to 20 shows a month."
The second-highest income source for Soulja Boy comes from Xcaliber a club he recently purchased on the north side of his hometown of Atlanta. "We do teen nights and 18-and-up nights," he says.
A third source is his BMI publishing deal and from his tracks for Bow Wow and Lil Vic ("Get Silly"). The smallest amount of revenue comes from his YouTube channel and his official Web site. On YouTube Soulja Boy has the third-most-watched music channel of the week with 558,283 views, the second-most-watched for the month of November with 4.4 million views and the fifth-most-watched of all time at 258 million views, after artists like Chris Brown and Britney Spears. His MySpace page has 98.2 million plays, 55.8 million views and 855,174 fans.
He's also planning on launching a videogame next year with an undisclosed game maker. That deal, Soulja Boy says, came about the same way he landed his record deal—from the Internet. "I put up a video on YouTube challenging Xbox Live players around the world. Next thing you know I got an e-mail from a videogame company—in the same way Collipark e-mailed me about signing me—offering me an opportunity to set up a videogame," he says.
Soulja Boy continues to build his music empire in other ways. In 2004, he launched his independent label, SOD Entertainment (which stands for Stacks on Deck), and recently signed a one-off deal with Universal Republic for his group Show Stoppers' first single, "Whoop Rico." Although it didn't make him the money he's accustomed to, it was an experience that he hopes will help him down the line. "I always thought of myself as being hot, but I'm not going to be hot forever," Soulja Boy says. "I wanted to test the waters with them before I released my solo artist, Arab. I want to have an artist with a No. 1 song in the country. I want to have the next big thing. I don't want the next big thing to come kill my career. I want to be the boss."
Arab, who he's known since the eighth grade, will be the first artist to follow in his footsteps with an album planned for as early as fourth-quarter 2009, yet Soulja Boy has his hesitations. "That project is tricky," he says. "He's my best friend and I want him to be ready, but I can't make him be something he doesn't want to be. I want an artist that's got passion and drive. I want to see them in the studio, on the Internet promoting themselves—but I can't force him to do something he's not ready to do."
Arab isn't the only fellow Atlantan Soulja Boy hopes to help. This month, he tapped into charity work, partnering with DJ Hit Man for a Toys in the Hood toy drive, where he is giving away Christmas gifts to 100 families in Atlanta.
"People know I do good business," he says. "If I endorse something or say I'm doing something, then it's getting done and it's getting done right. With great power," he says, quoting a line from the "Spider-Man" movie, "comes great responsibility."
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