When is the last time we have had a cultural phenomenon quite like Soulja Boy? He’s eighteen years old and writing goofy songs about his report card and coming up with silly dances. But stupid shit like that is usually the realm of overproduced Disney human accessories, and Soulja Boy is a self-made man, pulling himself up by tossing his videos on YouTube and MySpace. So he doesn’t really fit into the teen star mold, but he doesn’t fit too well into the hip hop mold either. No one knows what to do with him and so people either bitch about him or ignore him. In the impossibly pretentious book “Lipstick Traces,” the Sex Pistols are described as millenarian revolutionaries who were rebelling against nothing and everything, rejecting the traditional mores of popular music in favor of doing everything that music was not. Soulja Boy is the opposite of this. His only aim is to make something that sounds good, that people can dance to. Soulja Boy is the same age as Nas was when Nas made Illmatic, but he’s in a very different place: Nas was a grade-school dropout with a copy of the Qur’an, Soulja Boy is a high schooler with a YouTube account. Soulja Boy doesn’t give a shit about critics, haters, and the rest.
Consider his track Soulja Boy Tellem (That’s not a typo. If you had the file on your computer, it would be Soulja Boy Tell ‘Em – iSouljaBoyTellem – Soulja Boy Tellem.mp3). “Wake up out my sleep, it’s time to start another day / Soulja Boy how many albums did you go and sell today / It’s Beezy, the truth is what I’m tellin’ / Got this clown dissin’ me, but what is his album sellin’? / I’m doin’ interviews, undressin’ all these critics / Tryin’ to underrate me, sayin’ I ain’t got no lyrics / Three times platinum, yeah I broke the record / If you can’t respect that, tell me what is you respectin’?” Soulja Boy’s logic is as such: people seem to like him, so what’s the problem? He’s not trying to make high art here. And through most of the album, I was right there along with him.
The centerpiece of the album is a track called “Hey, You There” in which Soulja Boy recounts being hollered at by a mall cop (who I can only imagine to be Kevin James ) and goes into an indescribably goofy freestyle-ish thing over a minimal drum machine beat. It’s sincerely lame, goofy voices, corny jokes and all, and terminates just before it gets old. It’s his attempt at another “Yahhh!” and he succeeds all over the place. He’s got an excellent sense of comedic pacing, and he manages to crank out all the jokes at just the right times.
His attention to detail stretches throughout the album. “Yamaha Mama” thrives on a Birdman/Lil Wayne sample that’s perfectly placed alongside Sean Kingston’s hook, over some really chill strings and keys. “I’m ‘Bout Tha Stax,” starts out with him hollering about how much he likes money and cars and eventually devolves into some kind of perverted Dennehy. “Turn My Swag On” is like a bizarre parody of T.I. (though I couldn’t point to exactly which part of it sounds like T.I.) sung in his most nasal voice possible, with lyrics that embody the essence of Soulja Boy: “Hopped on out of bed / turned my swag on / took a look in the mirror, said wassup.” Dude greets his reflection, that’s how raw he is.
A game I like to play with very special rappers is to flip through the album listening to the first ten seconds of each track. Pick up this album and listen to each track until the first few words. Through the progression of the album, Soulja Boy starts by propping up your expectations: in the first ten seconds of the song, chances are he’ll say his own name. By “Booty Got Swag” he’s challenging those same expectations, preceding his eponymity with a non-sequitur country guitar hook that has nothing to do with anything (though the first time I heard it, I was sure he was about to do a country song. It didn’t seem like that much of a stretch). It all leads up to the self-titled track, where he eventually is saying his name in a chorus with himself, like every prior declaration of who he was was building up until that one moment where he could declare the haters were wrong.
“Gucci Bandana” features some solid guest verses from Shawty Lo and Gucci Mane, but what’s really mesmerizing about it is the droning hook and the minimal piano line underneath it. That’s another curious point about the album – Soulja Boy is surprisingly restrained. I expected to be beaten over the head with this album, every track set to eleven and a lot of partying, but he wants to be taken seriously as a musician. Maybe not as a rapper – that word carries such a burden! But as a musician, he’s disciplined, direct, and deliberate.
But how do you score an album like this on a 1-10 scale? This is like asking who’s better – Chris Webber at basketball, or the Pope at being the Pope? Soulja Boy is on a completely different plane than the rest of hip hop. There’s no one to compare him to. He’s making music as if he were a teen idol, writing saccharine ballads like “Kiss Me Thru The Phone” and no fewer than three tracks about his accessories (Gucci Bandana, Rubber Bands, Wit My Yums On). But he wasn’t cranked out of the Disney machine, he didn’t go through Lou Pearlman (or let Lou Pearlman go through him, yeeeouch). He’s too pop for hip hop, too hip hop for pop. But giving him his own category puts an artificial cap on what I can honestly give him. Let’s be fair – if Soulja Boy put out an album with impossibly clever wordplay and unrivaled production, I’d be reluctant to put it at a level comparable to even something like 808s & Heartbreak, just because Soulja Boy is saying just about nothing. Soulja Boy has invested so much in the art of saying nothing, that to rate him highly would be a disservice to rappers who say something. To rate him lowly would miss the point altogether. Soulja Boy is a crowdpleaser, and he’s great at what he does. He is what he is, and you better just line up and dig it.
Do you really want a numerical rating? Thanks a lot Metacritic. Fucking fine, I’ll just do what Rolling Stone does when they don’t know what to make of an album and give it three and a half stars out of five – or using our system, 7.0.
Posted by Joe Kaiser at Jan 12, 2009 02:26 AM