Soulja Boy is struggling. His latest album, The DeAndre Way, posted anemic sales figures, and he's only still making news by picking painfully stupid fights way out of his weight class. Many people in the world have always hated him, and for them, watching the man flail around in 2011, trying desperately to make himself relevant, is sweet, sweet justice. I am not one of those people.
It is possible to like Soulja Boy. The easiest way is to view his music as subversion: If its inane lyrics and beats that sound like they took ten minutes and six tracks to make offend hip-hop purists, then he's continuing a proud tradition in popular music of doing whatever it takes to make sure the previous generation hates it. Much of his rhetoric leading up to last year's The DeAndre Way supported that theory.
His music videos have occupied a world where the channels of power are controlled by black men in suits, and white people are caricatured largely as sideshows and errand boys. Soulja's struggle was never against the weight of a society that enslaved his ancestors and marginalized his family, never about rising out of drugs and poverty.
Hua Hsu, writing for The Atlantic, argued in 2009 that hip-hop had been, in some way, responsible for the ascendence of black culture. Suddenly, it was white kids from the suburbs trying to assimilate rather than the other way around. This is obviously not to say that racism is over or that there is not still excellent hip-hop being made intended to illuminate our society's myriad oppressions. But there was Soulja Boy way back in 2007, taking it for granted that everyone in America wanted to be him.
So he pursued the very thing the old guard of hip-hop hated most: frivolity. His chief concerns were getting state-of-the-art video-game systems and playing them as much as possible.
There were reasons to believe it was all conscious. He's not a great rapper, by any stretch of the imagination, but he's more than capable. Look up his freestyles. But he knew enough to build his career around the thing he is a true genius at: the Internet. Especially YouTube and Twitter, where he managed to convince an entire planet to learn a dance he knew was patently ridiculous and where he accumulated two and a half million followers, respectively.
To make that work, he needed Internet-ready music. So the main things he shot for were viral-ready entertainment and songs where a thirty-second sample on iTunes will literally allow you to hear everything there is to hear. So we got "Crank That (Soulja Boy)" and "Yahhh!" which both sound a lot less absurd in retrospect.
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The whole thing looked like it was going to edify last year. Drake, who is best described as an emo-rap singer, was the early standard-bearer for all of hip-hop. Everyone with a new shtick was being hailed as the future of the genre, and Soulja Boy suddenly seemed like he was ahead of the curve. He was shooting videos with 50 Cent (who, remember, is both highly shrewd and responsible for a bona fide hip-hop classic in Get Rich or Die Tryin') and hanging out with Lil B (who is widely acclaimed and an Internet prodigy himself).
But then Soulja Boy experienced something he'd never really had to face before: failure. The DeAndre Way sold 13,000 copies in its first week, or some 36 times fewer than Kanye's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Soulja's album debuted at number 90 on the Billboard chart, 86 spots lower than his first album four years ago. This shouldn't have been surprising: His fans know by now that the singles are the only things worth paying money for, and it will all be chronicled on YouTube anyway.
Soulja Boy did not respond well. His web presence went from effortless to pathetic in a matter of months. Now his strategy seems to be to whine like a bitch about everything: First claiming that he wrote "Whip My Hair" (not true), he quickly moved on to saying that Jay-Z beat him out in a bid to sign Cher Lloyd and, most recently, that he deserved Kanye West's Grammy in 2008.
The thing is, the singles are still good. "Speakers Going Hammer" is as defiant, ridiculous and entertaining as anything he's done. Yet it's all starting to taste sour. By throwing tantrums about three-year-old award ceremonies and desperately clinging to a song he had nothing to do with, Soulja Boy just comes out looking like a petulant kid. In that light, his music looks less like a carefree evolution in hip-hop and more like the immature hack job lots of people have always thought it was.