“Fuck Soulja Boy. Soulja Boy, I know you’re young enough to be my kid but you single-handedly killed hip-hop, man. That shit is such garbage. We came all the way from Rakim, we came all the way from Das EFX, we came all the way from motherfuckers flowing like Big Daddy Kane and Ice Cube, and you come with that Superman shit?” – Ice-T on Soulja Boy, 2008
Long before the words “mumble rap” had become a common colloquialism for everything wrong with contemporary hip-hop, Soulja Boy Tell ‘Em was the one being clowned on for destroying what was perceived as the fundamental tenets of the genre. Here was a 17-year-old from Batesville, Mississippi who couldn’t care less about the long-standing traditions and customs of the form; he cared about making money and being famous, and doing anything possible to get people to listen to his music in the process. Born DeAndre Cortez Way, he was a child and product of early 2000s internet culture: he would regularly upload his own songs onto LimeWire disguised under the titles of other, more popular tracks by established musicians, and he likewise had the foresight to start to utilize MySpace and YouTube as platforms for brand growth years before most major labels began taking notice. His first hit, “Crank That,” became an international sensation because it had a fun dance challenge people could upload and share with others. Impressively, Way didn’t need the industry behind him to become famous — he more or less forced his way in, giant oversized T-shirts and all.
Suffice to say, a changing of the old guard was underway, and the usual marketing tactics and tricks were no longer in vogue; a formerly underground genre was now being taken over by way of current underground (albeit, more guerrilla) methods. Sure, hip-hop had been commercialized before, and it had a proven track record of marketability, but Soulja Boy took it to glamorous heights the world had yet to witness. The hate, then, at least in this regard, was to be expected: gatekeepers were quick to write off the ascendant star as a one-hit-wonder and decry his relevance as only further proof of a momentary trend. And while Way’s influence in terms of promotion and publicity has certainly outlived any demand for his modern musical output, an astute listener can look back at most of this dated, old-head vitriol with a healthy amount of bemused skepticism. Kanye West would even later defend Soulja from Ice-T’s attacks, pointing out the hypocrisy involved in claiming someone who made their own 808 beats and wrote their own lyrics wasn’t what constituted “true” hip-hop.
Make no mistake though: Soulja Boy, and his entire sonic and visual aesthetic, was an explicitly goofy enterprise, the type nobody over the age of thirty should be legally allowed to preoccupy themselves with. His larger-than-life presentation was a brash mixture of gaudy theatricality and self-asserting swagger, reflected most cogently on the cover image for his second studio album, iSouljaBoyTellem, which is just an extreme close-up of his face (as opposed to the medium-shot of his previous project). It was an artistic choice which made sense to a degree, since at this point in time, Soulja’s ostentatious jeering towards reputability was reaching peak velocity — pushed most brazenly on the album’s outro, which has Soulja praying for his haters (and claiming that “My life is a movie and everybody’s watching”). There was also his claim, on the eponymously titled “Soulja Boy Tellem,” that “I spit harder, I spit fire / We tell them old washed up rappers to retire.” And while the assembled collection of hits here never matched the popularity of “Crank That,” they certainly proved Way was more of a force to be reckoned with than his skeptics first imagined or allowed for. “Turn My Swag On” even alludes to such naysayers supplying the motivation needed to “crank out” such massive bangers (“I had to prove ’em wrong / Got back in the studio and came up with another hit”). The other two big singles here, the euphonious pop-medley “Kiss Me Through The Phone” and the energetic “Bird Walk,” are decidedly less didactic, yet equally distinct in attempting to pitch Way as a versatile artist, one capable of maneuvering through a wide range of vocal styles and tonalities on a given project. The gambit nearly pays off, but comes short; Way certainly gives a lot of himself on the album, but it’s usually just a bit too much.
More specifically, he gives enough to evince how shallow his approach to composition can be when left unchecked (he has production credits on the repetitive “Booty Got Swag (Donk Part 2)” and the boring “Wit My Yums On”). More to the point, he doesn’t have much in the way of quality control, and, in that absence, he essentially constructs an anthology characterized by a certain excessive quality; the album, as whole, is really just extravagant for its own sake. The beats are bulky and thick, the lyrics are quite stoopid and opulent — and the entire endeavor reflects an ethos of unabashed pompousness. Never is this more apparent than on “Whoop Rico,” which features Atlanta snap outfit Show Stoppas (who would later go on to physically rob Way at gunpoint) and fat drum and bass lines that sound like a high school Soulja pep-rally that propels the young MC to… well, “spit game” might be a bit much, but it’s the closest thing Way could muster that would resemble spitting game. He’s by no means a great rapper, but the sheer hubris makes him something of a wunderkind here nonetheless. No matter what’s thrown at him, he modulates his voice to fit the circumstance: like on the ridiculous “Hey You There,” which features Ying-Yang Twins-esque whispered vocal sections that casually shift into cartoonish cadences, with one notable accent that resembles what it sounds like to impersonate someone if the objective is to make them sound really dumb.
In that spirit, one might assume that the best way to engage with iSouljaBoyTellem is on equally flippant terms. But, more substantially, it’s perhaps best served to encounter the album as a time capsule of sorts: an invitation to revisit an era where hip-hop was at the precipice of becoming the most popular form of musical entertainment in the world, when literally anyone could start uploading music onto the internet and become famous overnight. Andy Warhol once famously quipped that everyone would be world-famous for 15 minutes only; Soulja Boy ended his second album with the spot-on declaration that he “made history,” side-stepping that dreaded fate with fascinating ease, while also coming up with “that Superman shit” in the process.
Part of Kicking the Canon – The Album Canon.