On a warm spring afternoon at the Granite Room, a massive space in Castleberry Hill, a team of representatives at Atlantic Records built an image for Young Dro's upcoming album. They shuttled him through the rooms, where he struck poses against its stark-looking brick walls. Assistants buzzed around, chatting on cell phones and making suggestions for his attire. Photographer Michael Blackwell snapped away on his camera and told Young Dro, "Show me your grill." A gaggle of models sat and gossiped, waiting for their time to join the shoot.
Though there were some 20 people milling around the Granite Room, the vibe was so collegiate that when it was time to create another "scene," Young Dro simply changed outfits right in the middle of the floor. He spoke in a low and relaxed voice, contributing to the intimate atmosphere. "It's exciting and a lot of fun, but it's a lot of work," Dro said.
Young Dro, who's originally from Bankhead, grew up singing in the choir at Smith Chapel Baptist Church. But things went downhill after his family moved from Bankhead and subsequently bounced around Atlanta, living in poor neighborhoods like Kimberly Court. "These are raw spots," he said of the apartment buildings where his family lived.
When Young Dro was a teenager, he hustled on the streets and got shot at 16. "I wore a colostomy bag for a year," he said. That incident helped prompt him to leave the street life and get a legitimate job. "I worked at Shoney's and Captain D's with a grill in my mouth and jewelry on my neck," he said. "I submitted. I went on and got me a job like a regular person, instead of hustling on the corner." Fortuitously, it was while working at Shoney's and living in Riverdale that he first met T.I., then a fledgling rapper. The two became close friends; Young Dro remembers T.I. as one of the few people who didn't tease him about working for minimum wage.
As T.I.'s stock rose in the music industry, he formed his own record label, Grand Hustle, and a five-man crew called P$C (Pimp Squad Click), which included Dro. Young Dro had already issued an independent album, I Got That Dro, in 2002. Bolstered by the single "Yes Sir," I Got That Dro made some regional noise. But P$C's 2005 album 25 to Life gave him national exposure.
In April, "Shoulder Lean" was just a local club hit. But Grand Hustle and Atlantic Records proved prescient in arranging an expensive photo shoot. By August, a new version of "Shoulder Lean" featuring T.I. landed in the top 10 in the Billboard singles chart. Nearly five months after the photo shoot, Young Dro reflected on "Shoulder Lean." His voice was louder and more brusque than the one he used during that idyllic April afternoon. Arguing that he was no one-hit wonder, he said, "It's not a snap song. It's lyrically inclined. I mean, some of the things I say let you know that I know how to rap."
Young Dro's debut album, Best Thang Smokin', was released Aug. 29. On its cover he's surrounded by models clad in bikini tops and silvery hot pants. Two of them hug his legs with their asses thrust out, doggie style. A third lies in front of him, her breasts heaving and swelling. Much like the artwork for Best Thang Smokin', its songs establish that, unlike T.I.'s handsome thug image, Young Dro defines himself as a gutta, rough-hewn player.
If T.I. is the "Rubberband Man," wild as the Taliban, then Young Dro is "Rubberband Banks." "I'm the Rubberband Banks/Boi-oi-oi-oing/Tokyo diamonds/Choi-oi-oi-oing," raps Young Dro. On "U Don't See Me," he trades verses with Houston kingfish Slim Thug over a bumptious Jazze Pha beat. "Niggas dried sodium/I stand up like a podium/Smooth like linoleum/Presidentially I'm rolling 'em," he rhymes.
"These are some of the best lyrics you've probably heard this year, coming from one of the most charismatic guys anywhere," said Young Dro, with just a hint of grandiosity. "You can expect good music."