Pastor Troy is in his studio, eyes closed, arms swaying, lips parted slightly in a mischievous smile, dancing like a man overcome by the Holy Ghost. He's oblivious to his surroundings. All that matters in that moment is the music and the words bouncing off the studio walls.
At the end of the song he snaps to, looking around the room with a full-blown grin. "Whatcha think?" he asks rhetorically. "Am I on the right track?" He instructs the engineer to put on another song as he resumes his ritual, sinking once again into oblivion. Or so it seems. But anyone, who has heard his music or followed his career, knows that Pastor Troy is far from oblivious. He knows exactly what's going on around him. He knows his audience. He knows what they want. And he knows how to deliver.
He also knows when to shift gears and this time around, he's doing just that. Listening to his new CD, Pastor Troy: Starring In The Universal Soldier, it becomes clear that Troy is no longer preaching to the choir. Instead, he takes aim at the unconverted, the nonbelievers and gives them a deliciously devilish dose of their own medicine.
"I went left field," says Troy, describing the songs on Universal Soldier, a CD that is without a doubt the rapper's most creative, incisive and provocative work to date and one that will certainly solidify his already loyal fan base while garnering him a new sect of believers.
With representation by much-touted producers Timbaland (Aaliyah, Ginuwine, Missy Elliot) and Jazze Pha (Toni Braxton, Nappy Roots, Eightball and MJG), Universal Soldier finds Troy mixing it up with a new crop of music makers. But the sound is still recognizable, still true to the renown get-crunk-represent-the-dirty-south style that he introduced with his 1999 debut We Ready-I Declare War and 2001's Face Off, his first release for Universal Records. I just wanted people with the biggest sound," Troy says of the producers he selected. And he says he thinks his fans will be pleased with his choices. "I keep it real," he says emphatically. "I'm not worried about my fans' reaction. If anything, they're mad at me for staying down so long, saying, 'Troy, go on and go to the people in the limelight, just represent...I just wanted to go and capture everybody and bring them back to what I specialize in. I wanted to go and make it more radio accessible. I want everybody to hear it and then once they get the CD, they'll know what Pastor Troy is all about. It's just about covering more ground."
Born Micah Levar Troy in College Park, GA, Troy, 24, was the son of a drill sergeant-turned-pastor who laid down strict household rules and made sure his son was introduced to the church at an early age. But like most kids on his block, the young Troy was also exposed to street life. It is that dichotomy, that contradiction of influences that continues to be reflected in his music today: the respectful preacher's kid who knows better but can't resist indulging his naughty side; the gentlemanly boy next door who seems oblivious to the wiles of his street corner friends but, in actuality, is far craftier than they could ever be.
On Universal Soldier, Troy flirts with religion in one breath, embraces street life in the next and somehow manages to treat them with equal reverence. On songs like "For My Hustlers" and "I Pray For," he speaks passionately to his congregation of brethren in high and low places:
"I pray for peace and equality, opportunity/ Everything that I feel is due to me...I pray for niggas with nowhere to stay, putting people on the street every other day/It's people starving right here in our country man/Yet they still drop food in Afghanistan...I pray for the congress, I pray for the president/I pray for the nigga locked down with no evidence/It's all gon' be straight cuz, it's all depending on the level of your faith cuz I'm prayin' for ya."
On the braggadocios "I'm Cold," Troy teams up with R and B singer Nivea (a former high school classmate) for a slowed down groove that borrows from Roy Ayers' "Everybody Loves the Sunshine" (the same sample used in Mary J. Blige's "My Life"). "I got a bad reputation for what the music does in the clubs and stuff," says Troy proudly. "With this song, I'm just trying to get people to hear me out one good time. If you don't like the tear-the-club-up song, skip that one. This one might be the one."
Two exciting tracks on the set are both the Timbaland produced "Ex Factor" - a song that combines the uniqueness of both artists' styles into a perfect head bobbing blend and, "Are We Cuttin" featuring MS. Jade (the single is also the lead single from the soundtrack to the new Vin Diesel film XXX!) "I met Timbaland down here at a video shoot," says Troy, recalling his first encounter with the producer. "He already knew about me and I was like, 'Man I want you to produce on my next album.' We exchanged numbers. He was down with it. He knew my history and my background...He was excited about how I flowed and I was excited about how he produced. We were just popping it out like it wasn't nothing."
Other standouts on an album full of explosive, jaw-dropping performances
include the Lil Jon-produced "Who What When Where," a song Troy refers to as a "war cry" ("That's just Pastor Troy raw and uncut"); "When He Comes," which includes a prayer by the rapper's father, the original Pastor Troy; and Jazze Pha's "Undefeated," a cut that Troy simply describes as "crazy." Troy says many of the songs on the album took root in the deepest recesses of his creative psyche, a place that he sometimes doesn't even recognize. "Sometimes I write, and I'm like 'what was that for?' but it came too fast to me not to be what's supposed to be said so I just let it roll."
Since his beginnings, Troy's ascension in rap has been steady, earning him the respect of his peers and his fans. And for the most part, he's gotten by on his good looks, southern charm and undeniable talent. No high profile camps, no celebrity cliques, no coattails dragging him into the spotlight. "I've been pretty cool," he says humbly. "When I get on top of the game, I wanna know that I climbed the mountain, that I didn't just get dropped off on top of it. I wanna climb."
But for now, Troy says he doesn't mind being on the fringes of the hip-hop circle - a fact that is destined to change, however, with the release of Universal Soldier. "It's all for the good because if you're on the inside sometimes you can't see everything. From the outside I can look at the whole picture but then I've got a little insight about the inside too. It's cool. I keep it true. Everybody knows I'm from the heart; they can't deny that."
And everybody knows that whether he's positioned inside the industry circle or standing on its rim, Pastor Troy is not at all oblivious to his surroundings. He knows exactly what's going on around him. He knows his audience. He knows what they want. And he definitely knows how to deliver.