2011 must have been a confusing year for Soulja Boy. Accustomed to massive commercial success and equally massive critical condemnation, last year he had zero songs crack the Billboard Hot 100 but received some of the first positive reviews of his career: his mixtapes drew blog buzz, the Fader showed him love, and his song “Zan wit that Lean” was named Pitchfork’s 25th best of the year. And yet this praise seems isolated to certain corners of the Internet; the popular narrative of Soulja Boy as one-hit wonder and talentless embodiment of hip-hop’s death persists, hardly weakened at all. Last week, for example, Georgetown sociology professor Michael Eric Dyson visited Brown for a lecture entitled “Hip Hop: Should Artists be Accountable for their Words?” [A: lol]. According to the Brown Daily Herald, “Dyson called Lil Wayne a ‘rhetorical genius’ and made a distinction between the artistry of Lil Wayne’s portrayal of racism and misogyny and the music of artists such as Soulja Boy, which he said is “without artistic merit or philosophical considerations.” This type of cheap shot has become a matter of habit for Soulja haters, based off the outdated idea that he only makes music to make the kids dance (though I still don’t understand what’s wrong with that particular genre). It seems people really haven’t thought about Soulja Boy since “Crank That (Soulja Boy),” or perhaps “Turn My Swag On” amongst the radio inclined. For his sake and for mine, this should be remedied.
Soulja Boy is an important hip-hop artist for two reasons: his business influence and his artistic production. Regarding the former, let me say that Soulja is an internet God. Here’s the man himself from his recent documentary, Soulja Boy: The Movie, on childhood and computers: “We ain’t never had no computer. Went to Mississippi with my daddy; he had a computer, gave it to me. Had the fast internet on it… got a record deal.” That’s pretty much the story. In March 2007, Soulja Boy made “Crank That” on a downloaded demo version of the beat-sequencing program FruityLoops and put a video of himself dancing to it on YouTube. Six months later it topped the Billboard Charts. By simply uploading a constant stream of free songs and videos and maintaining a very interactive online presence, he built an adolescent Internet buzz big enough to force a major-label deal (according to legend, an executive at Interscope Records signed him after asking his kids what dance they were doing). While this business model—building buzz by flooding the Internet with free content—has had some crossover success (Bieber, most notably), it’s had a profound influence on rap, and Soulja Boy invented it. Remember when Lil Wayne was putting out a song on YouTube almost every day for months before Tha Carter III? Did you notice Azealia Banks had to crank that Soulja business model twice to make the 2012 XXL Freshman List? Do you like Lil B, Odd Future, or White Girl Mob? You can thank Soulja Boy. There’s a reason why the up-and-comers in rap the last couple years have been more creative and more experimental than ever before, and it’s that the industry doesn’t have to endorse artists for them to make a name for themselves anymore.
Even Soulja Boy’s haters sometimes acknowledge his influence on the rap industry, but very few people recognize his artistic talent. To consider Soulja musically necessarily starts with “Crank That.” In case you’ve forgotten how massive a hit it was, it not only topped the US Billboard Hot 100, but was a top five hit in at least five other countries. Soulja Boy’s personal list from his documentary of who’s done the dance reveals not only its culture ubiquity, but also his own amusing celebrity worldview: T-Pain, Chris Brown, Bow-Wow, Omarion, Jibbs, 50 Cent, Denzel Washington, Natalie Portman, Beyonce, Lil Wayne, Remy Ma, Snoop Dogg, Samuel L. Jackson, Ellen DeGeneres, Kanye West, and Regis and Kelly.
“Crank That” seems to be a mixture of two main influences: the minimalist yet danceable rhythm and goofy tone of snap music (think “Laffy Taffy” or “Lean wit It, Rock wit It”) and the abrasive delivery and jarringly unmodified 808 drum sounds of late crunk (Crime Mob’s “Knuck If You Buck” or “Rock Yo Hips”). While this formula had worked before, perhaps most notably in Lil Jon’s “Snap Yo Fingers,” nothing from either genre had ever been so successful in the US and internationally. The dance certainly explains some of this success, but I have a hard time buying that a song could be so big on the radio for any reason other than that a lot of people wanted to listen to it. Unless you think Soulja Boy just lucked into making some catchy tune (unlikely since he’s had other hits), then to explain its popularity one must acknowledge that Soulja Boy has some special intuition about pop music, maybe not on the level of The-Dream or Max Martin (“I Want It That Way,” “Since U Been Gone,” “Teenage Dream”), but definitely second-tier. How exactly this intuition manifests itself in songs is nearly impossible to pinpoint; a production assistant for Max Martin once described his process as more of a “gut-feeling” than holding any secrets, and Martin’s analysis of songs rarely goes past whether it “sounds good.” Soulja’s pop sensibility is no more ineffable. Take Soulja’s single “Yahhh!” Despite being a lo-fi composition of a grating, four-bar synthesizer loop, a historically bad verse by Soulja Boy’s friend Arab, and a chorus of clipped yelling, the song reached number 3 in New Zealand, a place I can only imagine has little cultural overlap with Batesville, Mississippi. These things don’t happen by accident.
“Crank That” well represents the general process of Soulja Boy’s songwriting. He takes whatever music he likes at the time, often mixing different styles that aren’t obviously compatible, and then adds his particular pop magic. In “Turn My Swag On,” for example, released in late 2008 amidst the T-Pain-inspired trend of rappers singing Auto-Tuned “pop” songs (“Whatever You Like,” “Lollipop”), he drew on his old influences and Atlanta’s budding “futuristic” rap scene to put out a bass-heavy banger, upping the ante on other artists’ downtempo ballads. Employing only what he was best at (songcraft) and foregoing what he’s worst at (conventional rapping), Soulja managed to score a hit, despite the song’s bizarre neither-sung-nor-rapped vocals and the unusual melodic similarity between the verses and the hook. In 2010’s “Pretty Boy Swag,” Soulja used the minimalist approach of snap music with his new discovery that he need not rap (in any conventional sense) to make a rap hit, adding perhaps a touch of early Lil B to make one of the slowest club dance songs ever released. The song was a legitimate pop and rap hit by the Billboard charts, and was immensely popular in clubs despite its daring-you-to-dance tempo, almost aggressively lucid flow imitating Lil Wayne at his most drugged out, and its asthma-attack chorus that somehow still manages to be a catchy hook. Perhaps even more than “Crank That,” its success is a testament to his special pop instincts.
These days, Soulja Boy is more creative than ever, but hasn’t had a hit since the summer of 2010. His methodology is still the same—blending styles and trying to appeal to the masses—but his tastes have taken a stark turn towards the avant-garde, and he’s yet to figure out how to translate them into marketable pop. In particular, Soulja was an early advocate of weirdo Berkeley rapper Lil B, drawn to the elements of his experimental #based style farthest from the mainstream: rather than embracing the controversial catchphrases like calling himself a “bitch” or “gay” that have propelled Lil B to modest fame, Soulja is more interested in the intentionally lo-fi production and almost nihilistic refusal to engage in narrative while being provocatively repetitive. At times, Soulja Boy borrows very blatantly from Lil B, to the extent the he would be ripping him off if he’d shown any interest in trying to hide it: in “30 Thousand 100 Million,” which actually features Lil B, he begins every line in his verse with “word around town is…”, a well-know #based-ism. In other songs like “Swim,” he more fully embraces the lo-fi aesthetic, using drawn-out kicks that clip and tinny, loud snares that add an uncomfortable edge to an otherwise typical Soulja beat. His flow on most of these songs is 2/3 #based and 1/3 slowed-down Gucci Mane molasses pour. He’s still doing him though: in “Cheat Code Swag,” Soulja brings parts of his new style to a glossy, outer-space Playstation beat and raps about his life-long affinity for video games, being so bold as to rep the manga Death Note in the music video.
While #based-inspired music is a large portion of Soulja’s current production, he likes too many different styles to really have a cohesive sound. Over the last year or so, various songs and mixtapes have shown the clear influence of Future, Waka Flocka, Rick Ross, and the remnants of the Atlanta “futuristic” movement like Skool Boy and Kwony Cash. Cash is actually signed to Soulja Boy’s record label, SODMG Entertainment and sang the hook in last summer’s internet/club hit “Zan wit that Lean,” probably Soulja’s best song, as well as the best evidence that his recent experimental binge has real promise. Musically, its as close as anyone has come to matching the pure bubblegum joy of “Ignition (Remix),” but instead of narrating having fun and being drunk, its about being carefree while fucked up on Xanax, lean (Sprite and prescription-strength promethazine-codeine cough syrup), and expensive weed. Cash’s line “I keep the hammer on me, I ain’t worried bout a thing,” brings to mind Soulja Boy’s emotional difficulties following a 2009 armed robbery of his house in which he ended up shooting one of the intruders. The balance of these more sinister undertones with the nonchalant materialism and sugary melody creates a complex and compelling song, one that manages to express a bliss at the brink of collapse without selling short the full intensity of the bliss at all. The surprisingly artful promo video (not the official video!) only adds to this effect with scattered images of Soulja, J-Money, and Cash dancing, playing Pacman, and blatantly drinking lean and smoking Kush.
The Internet may be slowly waking up to Soulja Boy’s artistic value, but some rappers still refuse to take notice. The washed-up elderly like Ice-T and the boring traditionalists like Fabolous hate on him. But things are changing. More relevant artists like Snoop Dogg, Gucci Mane, and Kanye support him (Kanye has even called him one of his “favorite, most genius” artists and sought beats from him when recording My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy). Soulja’s fourth album, Promise, is scheduled to drop next month, but as a major-label release it’s sure to be full of boring features and pandering tracks for the ladies. Look out for the mixtapes preceding it, though: Soulja has more gems on the way.
TAYLOR KELLEY B’12 just got out the shower. He’s wet. He’s fresh. He’s high. He’s clean. He just checked his bank account. He’s rich. Hundred millions. He’s 19. He’s tatted.