Growing Pains: Part 2 of 50 Cent and Soulja Boy’s XXL Cover Story From 2010
With the youth market on lock and his stock continuing to rise, SOULJA BOY has had some recent obstacles to face. Take a peek inside the chaotic, paranoid, groupie-infested and very wealthy world of hip-hop’s boy wonder.
Words by Matt Barone
Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in the November 2010 issue of XXL Magazine
Inside New York City’s Best Buy Theater, DeAndre “Soulja Boy” Way is about to entertain some special guests: Dr. Dre and Interscope-Geffen- A&M chairman Jimmy Iovine, who are seated in a private balcony. Beneath the two music-industry titans is a small yet enthusiastic group of youngsters. The curtains open and Soulja Boy, 20, hits the stage to his 2009 hit “Turn My Swag On,” eliciting deafening applause and rabid crowd participation. Next is his joint “Speakers Going Hammer,” followed by “Crank That (Soulja Boy).” By the conclusion of the three-song set, his fans are ecstatic. But one pint-sized supporter stands out. Throughout the concert, a little guy who can’t be older than six and sports a black Chicago White Sox cap and black Nike sneakers doesn’t stop bouncing. Before SB exits stage right, he expresses his gratitude. “I love all my fans,” he says, “for real.” The young fan’s mother, about 40 to 45 years old herself, then takes her son’s hands and claps them together in celebration.
Soulja Boy is used to seeing the kiddie corps at his shows. “I got young kids in high school, around my age—18, 19—in class swagged up because they like the dances, and then I have the girl fans that like me because of how I look. But then I’ll have the toddlers, ages one to six, that would just be like, ‘Super Soulja Boy!’”
He remembers a specific gig in Atlanta, in May2009.“I had to perform for T.I.’s last day of freedom. He was going to jail the next day. He called me personally on my cell phone and said, ‘Soulja, I want you to perform at my going-away party. I gotta go to prison tomorrow, but my kids love you. They want you there; I want you there.’ And I came through, met all his kids and took pictures.”
SouljaBoy’s unsophisticated,kid-friendly music is why he is the go-to piñata for derisive rap purists. But it’s worked for him. This past August, Forbes magazine released its “Hip-Hop Cash Kings” list. Soulja Boy ranked No.18,with $7million earned in just 2009. “There are times when I feel smarter than an adult,” says the financially comfortable young’n. It’s now hours after the concert, and Soulja Boy sits in a photo studio in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, after wrapping his cover shoot with 50 Cent. He wears a leather varsity jacket, white V-neck tee and denim jeans and puffs on a blunt. “I used to have conversations with adults all the time, and it would be hard to break down what I really want to see in life. Now I see myself with these multimillions, and people are still underestimating me. It just makes me feel like I’m way ahead of my time and really advanced for my age.”
This past summer, however, he was forced to grow up rather quickly. In late August, a video surfaced online showing Soulja Boy in a hotel room with groupie extraordinaire of the moment Kat Stacks. As if being caught on tape with a literal starfucker wasn’t bad enough, the clip also showed what Stacks claimed was cocaine, and she alluded to SB using the drug. The damaging footage even prompted Brooklyn MC Fabolous to clown Soulja in a freestyle, which led to the inevitable tit-for-tat Twitter beef.
A month later, SB fired back at all his enemies (“You talk shit, I will kick yo’ door, nigga”) on the 50 Cent–assisted “Mean Mug,” an atypically angry single off Soulja’s third LP, this month’s The DeAndre Way.
Whether he’s ready for it or not, hip-hop’s resident young buck has come of age. “I’m still learning,” says Soulja Boy. “I’ve been through a lot this year, and it’s nothing I expected. I just wanna rap, and I wake up and have some shit on me, out the blue, every single day. But, really, all it does is feed my ego.”
Soulja boy’s run is a one-of-a-kind hip-hop fairy tale. Back in 2006, DeAndre Way was a 16-year-old high school student in Batesville, Mississippi. His father, Tracey Jenkins, an engineer technician, purchased various recording equipment, such as a computer and a microphone, for his son to use to make music. Once home from school, Soulja created tracks using the program FruityLoops, posted the songs on Soundclick.com and asked his father’s college friend Miami Mike to book shows. Soulja worked at Burger King during the week and performed on weekends, plugging his MySpace page during each concert.
Soon the money started coming in. “I knew I had something that ain’t no other rapper have, because I was doing shows and getting money,” says Soulja. “I had never been on TV a day in my life, but people would know my song word for word—every single person in the audience.”
To accommodate his growing tour schedule, SB dropped out of his sophomore year of high school in early 2007. His life changed for good once he posted his catchy record “Crank That (Soulja Boy)” on his MySpace page; the track, which he self-promoted by shouting out his MySpace page during performances, eventually reached over 20 million plays. The Ying Yang Twins’ producer Mr. Collipark heard the Internet record, took notice, then shortly after flew SB to Atlanta and signed the overnight sensation to Collipark/Interscope. “CrankThat(SouljaBoy)”garnered over five million ringtone sales, and SB’s debut LP, Souljaboytellem.com, released in October 2007, went platinum. His success, of course, bothered some elder rappers. The Wu-Tang Clan’s GZA lashed out first, during a concert in London, baiting the crowd with Soulja Boy and 50 Cent allusions, telling the crowd, “Soulja Boy,he’s a young nigga. He’smy son’s age.” That led to an audience member saying “Fuck Soulja Boy” into GZA’s microphone. GZA responded with, “You hear that Soulja Boy?” And in June 2008, West Coast legend Ice-T charged SB with“single-handedly killing hip-hop,” on DJ Cisco’s Black Ice: Urban Legends mixtape. The 52-year-old Ice-T ended his rant by telling the teenager to “eat a dick.”
Soulja Boy hadn’t anticipated the backlash. “When I was just doing my shit on MySpace, I had all the love in the world,” he says. “It was nothing but fun. And then, when I officially got on TV and radio, muthafuckas were just coming out everywhere hating... The only thing I did was rap on my beats and get a record deal. So when they was coming at me like that, I was like, Okay, I’m 17 years old. I know I just made my first million dollars, and I’m still adding on to it. I got every single rapper in the world either hating on me or showing me love—I’m doing something right.”
There were missteps along the way, too. In December 2008, his sophomore album, iSouljaBoyTellEm, debuted on the Billboard 200 chart at No. 43, with a modest 46,000 units sold. Soulja doesn’t consider the LP’s underwhelming premiere a product of backlash, but the result of a mishandled setup. “I put out [the lead single] ‘Bird Walk,’ and it ain’t really do what I wanted it to do,” he says. “I put the album out just with ‘Bird Walk,’ and it wasn’t the numbers I wanted.”
Soulja Boy regrouped and quickly released “Turn My Swag On” (which climbed to No. 19 on the Billboard Hot 100), then followed that with the even more successful “Kiss Me Thru the Phone” (No. 3 on the Hot 100). “These two songs are on that same album, and they came out after the fact that it was released,” he says. “I learned a big lesson about setting up an album.”
Soulja Boy’s new game plan took shape in mid-2009, when he hired industry heavyweight Chris Lighty, CEO of Violator Management/Brand Asset Group, as his manager. With Lighty’s help, last summer, SB jumped aboard the America’s Most Wanted tour, a 22-city bill that featured Lil Wayne and Young Jeezy. “That [tour] helped exploit the fact that he can really stand on the stage with big heavyweights,” says Lighty.
Soulja Boy hopes his own label, S.O.D.M.G. (Stacks On Deck Money Gang), to which he’s signed former The Pack member and Internet sensation Lil B, and The DeAndre Way make him one of those big heavyweights. “The DeAndre Way is very important to establishing Soulja as a brand with staying power,” says Dominic “DJ” Mormile, Interscope’s president of urban music. “He proved on the second album that he was in no way a one-hit wonder. Now is the time to take it to that next level, and I believe he’s ready as an artist and has the songs to take it there.”
Aside from the intense 50 Cent duet “Mean Mug,” his third LP features tracks with Kanye West and Drake, cred-boosting collaborations intended to make listeners think that Soulja can hold his own alongside respected MCs. “I can’t keep playin’ around, because if you keep playin’ around, people are gonna think you’re a joke,” he says. “At some point, you have to get serious.” But don’t expect any bar-for-bar lyrical wizardry. “I don’t want to be super- Lupe-Fiasco-lyrical and niggas don’t know what the fuck I’m talking about,” he says. “I want to be the best... I want to be recognized in that category where I’m nominated for Best Rapper with Jay-Z and Kanye and Wayne. I wanna get a Grammy. I want Best Rap Album of the Year... I’ve made millions of dollars off of doing my style, but, hey, I can rap, too.”
Even Soulja Boy's biggest critics couldn’t envision the Kat Stacks video. The footage
was shot in a first-person point of view inside Atlanta’s Intercontinental Hotel and shows what appears to be lines of cocaine laid out on a table. Soulja can be seen in the background.
Drug charges are bad business for any rapper, especially a 20-year-old with a mostly youth-driven fan base. Fortunately for Soulja Boy, his followers are as loyal as they are young. An on-camera interview with Columbus, Ohio, radio station Power 107.5 was interrupted by a group of female fans who shouted, “Fuck that groupie-ass bitch!” (That incident is pretty upsetting itself.) “When that shit popped off, I really brushed it off,” he says. “I thought, This ain’t gonna do nothin’ but bring more attention to me. Because I ain’t gonna lose no fans over this. Only an idiot would think that Soulja Boy snorts cocaine.”
Still, he’s filled with paranoid conspiracy theories. “That’s easy to see that a bitch set me up,” says Soulja Boy. “I think the shit goes deep. That ain’t just no bitch. That ain’t just some girl who’s running around getting caught up with muthafuckas. That bitch is hired. She’s working for somebody and targeting muthafuckas. She’s out to ruin niggas. That shit’s just weird to me, because, if you know me, you’ll think, What the fuck? Where is this com- ing from? There are some muthafuckas out to get me, man.” [Editor’s note: Despite repeated overtures to her reps, Kat Stacks refused to comment for this story.]
After the Stacks video was released, Fabolous randomly addressed the situation during a freestyle on Funkmaster Flex’s Hot 97 nighttime radio show, in New York City. Over Rick Ross’s “B.M.F.” instrumental, Fab spit, “Pretty boy swag, never coked my nose, though,” referencing Soulja’s recent hit “Pretty Boy Swag.” Soulja Boy rebutted on Twitter: “ON GOD NEXT TIME I SEE YOU BOY UMMA FOLD YOU I HOPE YOU READY LIL BOY @myfabolouslife.” Fab responded by creating the hash tag #SouljasCokeHa- bit. 50 Cent, SB’s Interscope label mate and buddy, jumped in and defended the young rhyme slinger on Twitter. A week later, though, the beef with Fabolous was squashed over the phone. “The words that was used put me in a confrontational state of mind,” SB says. “You can go from having fun and entertaining people to saying, ‘Yo, you stupid’ or ‘Fuck you,’ getting disrespectful. That’s when it turns to more than Twitter... But we’ve resolved that.”
The cocaine accusations, though, have left him frazzled. “I ain’t gonna lie—the shit can scare you,” he says. “I be chillin’, right, doing my everyday shit, and I’ll wake up and see things that are 100 percent totally false. Not even on some semi believable shit. It really makes you sit down and think. The media can make 80 percent of the people sway their opinions on what they believe. So if they keep pushin’ that, they probably could get it to where people really have that in their head. That’s just crazy, because there ain’t really nothin’ you can do about it.”
During long conversations, Soulja Boy typically goes off on some wise-beyond-his-years tangents. For instance, this is how he responds to a question about his career arc: “I’m looking at T.I., at Gucci Mane, at Lil Wayne and at Lil Boosie. What keeps poppin’ up? The law. I’m like, What’s holding my people back from succeeding? It’s the law. So if I outsmart the law, and if I focus, I can be on top of everybody, because everybody is letting the law fuck their careers up. Even though, that bitch, she set me up, right? But that wasn’t shit. You didn’t have the law, with me in jail, the media saying ‘Soulja Boy’s been arrested for cocaine.’ You had a fuckin’ bitch just talkin’ shit.”
He’s also eyeing college, with hopes of enrolling at the University of Mississippi next year. He’s aware, however, that his hectic schedule will make it quite difficult. Even when he dropped out of high school to pursue his rap career, Soulja kept education in mind. (In 2007, he obtained his GED.) If he attends college, Soulja intends to study Flash animation, a passion since he was 14. That’s the anchor for a tangent on America’s education system: “You go to Asia, where they go to school year-round, and then you look at America,” says Soulja. “What did they teach us? Math, algebra, history, science... But where is the creativity? Over there, I know 14-year-olds that can sit there and do [Flash animation]. I know that they didn’t teach that a day in high school or middle school. That just amazes me.”
Does the hip-hop community or even that kid at the Best Buy Theater care about Soulja Boy’s opinions on American schools? Probably not, and he’s fine with that. “I’ve noticed, with some rappers, that [rap is] their whole gimmick,” he says. “It’s their lifestyle, what they’re all about. When you look at Soulja Boy, you don’t look, like, ‘Hey, I dig Soulja Boy because he’s into Flash animation. He wants to create cartoons.’ You usually hear some other type of thing... I make music. They expect ‘rapper’ things from me, so that’s what I give them.”
His manager expects that to change. “As he grows, you’ll see more maturity,” Lighty says. “When I talk to him, he goes on many tangents. That’s just what the new youth do. When they do their homework, they got their computer on and the music on. This is the multitask generation, and he talks in that same language. He’s the new model for that. Being so young, he’s in a really great place, and he has that entrepreneurial spirit that will hopefully lead him into a 20-, 25-year career.”
Soulja Boy has a more specific vision. “When I was younger, I had this vision of, like, an AT&T skyscraper building that says S.O.D.M.G. on it,” he says. “Like a Trump Tower or something. I don’t know, maybe when I’m 35 or 45 I’ll have that big skyscraper. It’ll be a big multimillion-dollar empire. That’d be crazy, though, right?”
A kid can dream, can’t he?