Soulja Boy makes no apologies for the still-fresh ink on his body-the cross tattooed under his eye, the dollar sign printed on the side of his neck, the name "DRE" adorning his back. Two years after appearing as a baby-faced teenager on the cover of 2008 sophomore album "iSouljaBoyTellem," the 20-year-old has dramatically changed his appearance, but believes that his fans will recognize him now more than ever. "My fans love Soulja Boy . A tattoo's not going to change that," he says with a shrug. "They've grown with me. If anything, they're getting tattoos now too."
If the dozens of tattoos didn't make it crystal clear, Soulja Boy (real name: DeAndre Way) is no longer the 16-year-old kid from Atlanta who released "Crank That (Soulja Boy)," mastered social media promotion and watched the track become, according to Nielsen SoundScan, the 14th-best-selling digital song of all time, moving 4.6 million copies. Wearing a maroon letterman's jacket, a sparkling gold bracelet and matching wristwatch, the rapper/producer almost always smiles when he speaks but stays serious when discussing his work habits and the personal themes explored on his forthcoming third album, "The DeAndre Way."
Soulja Boy began conceptualizing new material while on a European trek at the end of last year. Tinkering with Pro Tools in an Amsterdam hotel suite, the rapper came up with "The World So Cold," a track that sampled Band of Horses ' "The Funeral" and discussed rape, police brutality and economic suffering.
Instead of saving the track for his third album, Soulja Boy leaked it online last December to see what his fans thought of the musical shift. "The response that I got was perfect," he says, "and I just built on it from there."
Soulja Boy returned to the States and kicked off a recording binge in Atlanta and Los Angeles last December, during which he would listen to dozens of unfinished songs in his car and see if his ideas held up as he drove around. Although he remains meticulous when making his own beats, Soulja Boy had no problem turning the reins over to other producers, including Drumma Boy, Rico Beats and Lex Luger.
"He never wants to stay the same," says producer Boi-1da, who has helmed recent tracks by Drake and Eminem and produced the raucous "Speakers Going Hammer" for "The DeAndre Way." "He goes with the flow in the studio and has fun without thinking too much. But he's always developing [as a producer] and progressing into other directions."
Soulja Boy gravitated toward Kanye West to improve his production methods, and the two spent time in the studio together throughout the past year. Although "Way" features guest spots by Trey Songz, Keri Hilson and Lil B, Soulja Boy says that he learned the most from West, who doesn't appear on the album.
"He changed the whole style I was using to make beats," Soulja Boy says. "He was like, 'What equipment do you use?' I said, 'A laptop.' And he had three pianos, a keyboard, a PC. So that inspired me to open myself musically."
The sessions with West led to a sea change in Soulja Boy's production method. New tracks like "30 Thousand 100 Million" use woozy synth effects instead of spare percussion, and Soulja Boy adds that he has taken West's lead and begun toying with classic soul samples.
If West is his musical mentor, then former West rival 50 Cent, who guests on "The DeAndre Way" track "Mean Mug," has informed Soulja Boy's expanding business savvy. "When I was unsigned, 50 was doing it, and not just in the music industry: Vitaminwater, movies, books. He helped shape what I envision for my career," Soulja Boy says.
Soulja Boy will follow 50 Cent's multiple book releases with "Teenage Millionaire," a memoir detailing the rapper's rise. (He says he's fielding offers from publishing companies.) Soulja Boy also plans to make the transition into film, beginning with a documentary about his upbringing, set for release next year.
Like 50 with G-Unit Records, Soulja Boy has continued using his Stacks on Deck Entertainment imprint to promote rappers like Arab and Lil B, as well as his S.O.D. Money Gang posse. Soulja Boy also showcased his business knowledge when he took part in the Wall Street Journal's "Weekend Conversations" interview series on Oct. 29, discussing his utilization of social media sites like SoundClick and MySpace.
"Opportunities like that just get his story out there, and it shows how he started his career and what he has accomplished already," Interscope senior VP of A&R DJ Mormile says. "The Wall Street Journal noticed him as a businessman and somebody who can connect the youth to another world. He acts like a CEO, and he's only 20."
Soulja Boy has also mimicked 50 Cent in his ability to attract controversy: In December 2008, the rapper was robbed and assaulted in his Atlanta home, and last year he was arrested for allegedly running away from a policeman when ordered to stop. Soulja Boy was also accused of being addicted to cocaine in a viral video made by hip-hop "super fan" Kat Stacks.
Although he flatly denies the claim, Soulja Boy says he received concerned calls from his parents and other artists when the clip was first released last August. "Somebody set me up," Soulja Boy says. "What regular girl would do that? It's good for me, because it gives y'all something to talk about. I don't really let it get to me-I got too much swag."
While "Crank That (Soulja Boy)" drove the sales of the rapper's first album, "souljaboytellem.com," to 996,000, according to Nielsen SoundScan, follow-up album "iSouljaBoyTellem" debuted at No. 43 on the Billboard 200 in 2008, partially due to the relatively disappointing chart action of first single "Bird Walk." However, second and third singles "Kiss Me Thru the Phone" and "Turn My Swag On" each reached the top 20 of the Billboard Hot 100 in 2009 and kept "iSouljaBoyTellem" on the albums chart for 36 weeks.
Although Soulja Boy views the success of the two singles as an affirmation that he is more than a one-hit wonder, the rapper is determined to make sure "The DeAndre Way" is stronger coming out of the gate. According to Coda, "Pretty Boy Swag" wasn't meant to be the first single, but Soulja Boy wanted to get "two looks" before the album release and leaked the song himself last summer.
"He pushed it himself and it blew up," Coda says, "and the machine jumped on top of it and kept it moving."
Leading up to the album release, Soulja Boy will focus on third single "Speakers Going Hammer," which the rapper shot a video for in October. Mormile adds that, aside from Soulja Boy's radio appearances this month and a tour projected for early 2011, the social media king will maintain his crown during his promo run, giving his 2.4 million Twitter followers and 1.6 million Facebook fans different videoclips that preview new songs.
Although Soulja Boy is confident that "The DeAndre Way" will be a hit at retail, he is already looking to continue recording and exploring his West-approved "new method" of production. "Sometimes I forget that I produced 'Crank That,' " he says. "I got to make more beats. Even when I was in the studio with Kanye West, I was like, 'I gotta make more beats.' "
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