On July 14, 2016, the people spoke. I asked for a terrible musical act to feature, and they chose Soulja Boy, aka Soulja Boy Tell ’Em. Eltneg recommended him “or any other mid-2000s ringtone rapper,” and Artist Spotlight series manager Mexican-American Martian tacitly endorsed this shameful project. So here we are.
Soulja Boy burst onto the scene in 2007 with his biggest hit and raison d’etre, “Crank That (Soulja Boy),” which he released first on his own record label, Stacks on Deck, and as a digital download. For context, the official version on his Vevo channel has 239 million views, placing it among other legitimate commercial hits like Beyoncé’s “Crazy in Love,” at 243 million, or, improbably, Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ On A Prayer” at 237 million.
The song isn’t that bad. It’s definitely not good. The pale steel drum hemiola and limp hi-hat beat are both courtesy of Fruity Loops, but what stands out to me is its disinterest toward pop music structure. Usually songs have a beginning, middle, and an end, and also a verse-chorus-verse outline. Artists who ignore one or the other of these conventions usually do so for a reason, like the song just wouldn’t work otherwise. As far as I can tell, Soulja Boy just doesn’t care about any of that. (Technically there are verses and choruses, but they sound so much alike as to be indistinguishable.) Consequently, while listening, I kept waiting for the song to begin. I thought all the repetitions of “Soulja Boy crank that flow” and “Superman dat hoe” were just the intro.
Soulja Boy is from Atlanta, and influence of that regional hip hop scene is undeniable, most obviously Unk’s “Walk It Out.” But the success of “Crank That” is due more to its distribution and marketing than anything else. At this time, MySpace was still bigger than Facebook, YouTube was just getting off the ground, and the breakthrough iPhone model was still a year away. “Crank That” blew up MySpace, YouTube, and ringtones.
Ringtones! You’re nobody unless your phone is swathed in a blinged-out case like they sell in shopping mall kiosks and plays “Crank That” when your shorty calls. Billboard even had a ringtone chart, and “Crank That” hit no. 1. To be fair, the song also went to no. 1 in the Hot 100. At this time, Soulja Boy was 17 years old.
Soulja Boy Tell ’Em signed with Collipark and Interscope, and put out his major-label debut, souljaboytellem.com, just a few weeks after he topped the charts. I love the self-referential opening to this video, for the second single off that album, “Yahhh!” Soulja Boy and his associate Arab (great name) are playing a video game that features themselves, until Soulja Boy gets a call and the ringtone is his own song.
The critics savaged this record, especially the ones from smaller outlets looking to make a name for themselves by writing the most brutal takedown imaginable. “Aside from the fact that every track on the album can be trimmed down by at least a minute, [his] repeated vocal sample technique is used mainly to distract from the fact that as a rapper, Soulja Boy’s talents are unbelievably weak,” wrote Pop Matters. “The only hoe that got Superman’d on ‘Souljaboytellem.com’ is anybody who spent $14.99 on this record,” said RapReviews.com.
Let’s move on!
Soulja Boy’s 2008 sophomore effort carried the cell phone-inspired title iSouljaBoyTellem. It includes “Turn My Swag On,” his most creative hit yet, which means it has four or five different lines repeated ad nauseam instead of just one or two. It also has the barest hint of a plot: Soulja Boy is now rich. According to Wikipedia, several MLB sluggers have used this song as their walk-up music, including Ryan Braun, Andruw Jones, Nick Swisher, and former Rihanna boy toy Matt Kemp. Hey, if Matt Kemp likes Soulja Boy, maybe I’m wrong about him.
The video is probably the best parody of hip hop wealth glorification since “I’m On A Boat,” and I’m not 100 percent sure it’s intentional. In it, Soulja Boy blows his nose on a handful of Benjamins, eats a bowl of diamonds like it was breakfast cereal, rides a Segway to the recording studio in his guest house, unboxes the latest(?) Xbox, brandishes all his framed Billboard charts, rolls around on a chaise covered with cash, and drives off in a Lamborghini.
But the video is also rather sad, because Soulja Boy is by himself almost the whole time. He wakes up to an empty house, doesn’t even converse with his producers, barely interacts with Arab, and leaves in a car alone at the end. Is this what he’s been getting rich for? In the “Big Pimpin’” video, Jay-Z had Bun B, Pimp C, and a dozen women in bikinis on his yacht, and they all partied at Carnival in motherfucking Trinidad. Step it up, Soulja Boy.
It was around this time that Soulja Boy and Ice-T started their beef. Here’s the short version: Ice-T said Soulja Boy sucks, Soulja Boy said some shit about Ice-T, and then Ice-T released this video. If you watch nothing else from this Spotlight, watch the video below.
Talk about ownage. This is the best thing I’ve seen online since I streamed The Force Awakens in December. I wonder if he would do a video like that about me for my birthday? Please see below to donate to my Ice-T Birthday Video Patreon.
Soulja Boy’s third and last (so far) major label studio album is 2010’s The DeAndre Way, which is also his real name, lest any Soulja Boy album not have his name in the title. It featured the single “Pretty Boy Swag,” which peaked at 34 on the Hot 100 and either went platinum (Wikipedia) or did not (RIAA).
At least this time he’s got babes in his rented mansion.
The album sold poorly. Soulja Boy mostly blamed Interscope and Collipark for failing to ship enough units and not promoting it. Despondent, he considered quitting the rap game—until 50 Cent talked him out of it. From a 2011 interview with Complex:
When I was at my lowest point in my career and I just felt like I ain’t really want to do this music no more. I was like, ‘Man, I’m still young. I made enough money.’ My head was on a whole different radar, but he [50 Cent] was like, ‘Man, you tripping little bro. You’ve got to keep it going.’ He was like, ‘You’ve got to keep doing what you’re doing. You’re Soulja Boy, you’re here for a reason. Everybody’s not going platinum. Everybody didn’t do what you did. Everybody didn’t come in on the Internet. You’re the one that started the Internet. You’re the one that got me on the Internet. You’re the one that got us on blogs, on YouTube, and on Twitter.’ I was like, ‘Man, you know what? You’re right.’
Thanks, Fitty. You saved us from a world where Soulja Boy doesn’t record music any more.
Soulja Boy has released one more LP since the The DeAndre Way flop, 2015’s Loyalty, which he put out on his own label. The only song from it that I could find on YouTube is “Don’t Nothing Move But the Money,” an actually professional-sounding track that I like better than any of his previous work. He channels 50 Cent and Wiz Khalifa in his laid-back delivery (though he was never a fast tongue to begin with) while the beat is reminiscent of David Banner’s “Get Like Me” (the “stuntin’ is a habit” song).
The challenge Soulja Boy faces is that it’s difficult for him to get better and still be Soulja Boy. The entire success of “Crank That” is based on the fact that he put it together with the barest possible DIY production, paired it with an inane dance, caught a ringtone/MySpace wave that wasn’t going to last, and got lucky. If he improved on all the shortcomings that everyone pointed out—that he can’t rap, that his beats are lame, that his music sounds like it was produced in a bathroom—well, that would only make him a mediocre hip hop act.
Most one-hit wonders flame out because A) they can’t replicate the stroke of genius they had the first time around, or B) tastes and market conditions change. Soulja Boy managed to be a three- or four-hit wonder, mostly by eschewing the idea of artistic growth and simply doing the exact same thing over and over until it didn’t work any more. By then, people were no longer downloading hip hop ringtones, and he was no longer the only recording artist on YouTube.
These days, Soulja Boy is still out there, trying to get back into the game. In between appearances on VH1’s Love & Hip Hop: Hollywood, he still makes music: according to Wikipedia (yeah, I know) he’s released a whopping 34 mixtapes since 2010. That doesn’t include his latest, Rockstar, which features “Pints of Lean,” posted to YouTube just one week ago:
Again, the sound is derivative and about five years behind the times. It’s basically T-Pain meets Future.
Let’s assume for a moment that Soulja Boy is talented. That means his current problem is one of focus. Six mixtapes a year is a lot. His website says he’s got yet another one dropping on July 28. It’s no surprise that with such a prolific output, the quality suffers. I don’t think he needs to do a 180 and become some sort of Dr. Dre-like hermit, but maybe working on, I don’t know, ONE record per year, and focusing on making the tracks as strong as possible, would be a better strategy.
There’s also the issue of his business ventures. Soulja Boy made a splash in May when he announced he’d signed a $400 million endorsement deal with World Poker Fund Holdings to help them launch something to do with online gambling. This company currently trades at $0.40 per share, has not been profitable for four years, if ever, and their spokesperson is a consultant from, I shit you not, 1-800-Public Relations.
I understand that Soulja Boy wants to emulate his mentor 50 Cent, but get real. He will not be seeing $400 million from this deal, because nobody will. He is also apparently now affiliated with something called FilmOn TV, which is an Internet television streaming service that also signs rap artists for some reason. (I’m not kidding: they had Chief Keef, but dropped him when he went on tour without their permission?) Again, Soulja Boy—bad call.
But he’s rich and I’m not. So what do I know?