"I've been going through Mississippi, all of the smaller towns, going to the high schools and speaking with the kids," said do-gooder David Banner.
"I gave a challenge to my old high school that if they brought their national scholastic test scores up, I would bring somebody to their school. And Lil Scrappy came for free — he would not let me pay him. He was like 'Banner, you do so much in the community and you try so hard, if I bless you, God's gonna bless me' " (see "Five Lucky People To Attend College On The David Banner Plan").
Banner, who dropped his third album, MTA: Baptized in Dirty Water, in 2003 to lukewarm results, hopes to make his next solo project, Certified: The Album (which drops July 19) stick. His first single, "Ain't Got Nothing," featuring Magic and Lil Boosie, already has a video in rotation and he's ditched his former "preachy" tracks for party joints.
"We got everybody and their mom on the album," Banner said. "From Twista to T.I. to Lil Jon to Jazze Pha, Jagged Edge, Talib Kweli, Too Short, Three-G Mafia. It's a star-studded event."
And what kind of party would it be without something for ... the ladies?
"DJ Smurf did my second single ['Play'] — it's amazing and it's something for the women," Banner said. "I have a problem that's actually a blessing at the same time: When you go to my shows, as rugged as they can be at times, I'd say 85 percent of my crowd are women. I'm serious: I don't know where it comes from."
But the slick look he's rocking for the new LP isn't because he's looking for a date.
"The pictures for this new album [have me wearing] suits and ties because I'm trying to be a businessman," said the Mississippi native. "If you look at the South, most of us didn't come from demos or having one hot verse on the mix CD. Me, Lil Jon, T.I., Ludacris — we all put out independent albums. We'd all sold hundreds of thousands of records before we got signed [to major labels]. I had more spins than 85 percent of the people that was in the urban department of Universal before I got signed to Universal. So I think that people should respect us as artists and as businessmen."
Banner has been getting plenty of respect in both areas, not just for his own work but for his production for others.
"I just finished with Twista," he said. "I'm working on Lil' Wayne, I'm stalking Amerie — you didn't hear the last one, did you? I did a song for Ludacris that we're trying to get Green Day on. Young Jeezy ... and I'm about to work on Chingy's new album."
But the multitasker is cutting down on his outside work to focus on Certified.
"After I did [T.I.'s] 'Rubber Band Man,' everybody and their mom was calling me," Banner recalled. "My career jumped a whole lot farther on the production end than anything else. But what I did for this album, I just shut down for a minute: I gotta do me."
But he's not just talking about his musicial career: He's been sharpening his Denzel skills in a weekly acting class at Los Angeles' Warner Loughlin acting school.
"I've been in acting school for about a year," he said. "I go to L.A. every week, and it costs a lot of money. The white rich girl who's in 'Hitch,' she's in my class. And there's a couple other people who started blowin' up that were in the class I was in. It's crazy."