Soulja Boy’s insane popularity is due almost exclusively to his use of the Internet and YouTube as his distribution method. Soulja Boy, a kid himself at the time, clearly understood how his generation was spending their time and where they were consuming media. Soulja Boy’s “Crank That” was a song that was majorly successful as a product of the Internet, and the way he pioneered the use of this platform forever changed the way people listen to and distribute music. Now, there is no hugely popular song, or any song for that matter, that doesn’t owe whatever success it has largely to the internet. Music and the Internet have become inseparable, and Soulja Boy was the kid who spilled the glue that joined them in the first place, regardless of how sloppy the seal was.
“Crank That” is the godfather track to a long lineage of 21st century meme dances. This is a simple dance that presents a catchy pop-rap song through a fun and accessible video that is distributed through the Internet. Meme dances are hugely popular for a few weeks, but are soon forced to live the rest of eternity in the dark crevasses of the Internet with the likes of the “Bedroom Intruder” and that song about the fox or whatever. In an attempt to ride the coattails of the success of “Crank That,” dance songs identical in sentiment began sprouting up of nowhere, some more successful than others. Notable examples include “You’re a Jerk," "Teach Me How To Dougie," “Cooking,” (We’ll get to Lil B later), and more recent examples like “Gas Pedal."
From the beginning, Soulja Boy emerged as an interesting figure in the hyper-masculine hip-hop community. He danced, his beats were childlike, he wore colorful Bathing Ape Shoes, wrote his name on his sunglasses, and called himself “pretty." He was like the pack of bubble gum that found its way next to the condoms in CVS. Hip-hop is often criticized for the artists’ excessive assertion of masculinity, and in turn, its violent and misogynistic content, while Soulja Boy was always too busy trying to find the switch to turn his swag on or getting kisses through the phone. While Rich Boy was trying to get D’s thrown on his new Caddy, Soulja was trying to get some D’s thrown on his report card. Rappers have become more in touch with their feminine sides. As much of a “pretty mothafucka” A$ap Rocky may appear to be now, he definitely wouldn’t be as proud of it if Soulja hadn’t shown us his own signature “pretty boy swag” years before “Peso.” Soulja Boy’s total disregard for expectations of what a rap star should be and his focus on individuality opened the doors for future artist to be equally or more expressive and flamboyant. Its hard to imagine queer rap artists such as Mykki Blanco and Zebra Katz being accepted by such large audiences without Soulja Boy setting the groundwork for expressive and flamboyant music.
A lot of people ask me to explain what “Based” means in reference to transcendental meme-rap icon Lil B. Although it is an increasingly abstract concept that enters Camus and Kierkegaardian levels of philosophical complexity, its basic definition is to be oneself in a way that disregards societal expectations, and to do nothing that hinders anyone from doing the same. This philosophy is manifested through the music of Lil B and other artists with a similar stream of conscious, comically absurd lyricism. It is essentially self-aware, bad rapping. Soulja Boy was doing this years before Lil B and his contemporaries. His raps were always fun, easy-going, lyrical nonsense that had no intention of appealing explicitly on an intellectual level. While Lil B may be responsible and have coined the Based movement, Soulja Boy was the first to express these ideas in his music. Lil B is the Vladimir Lenin to Soulja Boy’s Karl Marx. Not to mention Soulja was swaggin way before every fourteen year old boy at the strip mall stripped the word of its meaning.
Soulja Boy doesn’t make it easy for any serious music listener to like him, and that’s fine, you don’t have to like him. In fact, it is entirely acceptable to dismiss Soulja Boy as garbage. However, there were a lot of bad people who did objectively influential things, and it is important to recognize this influence to understand the greater context of their impact. When hip hop history is studied in classrooms across the world, Soulja Boy is going to get one of those special sectioned off blue sections with a picture of him glaring at us past the page, past his name written on his shades.
Kevin O’Brien is a New Jersey native who is studying film production at Emerson College. He is a Pitchfork Historian, accomplished musician, and aspiring Internet celebrity. Girls love him, boys want to be him, you’re just jealous because he’s famous. You can find Kevin on Twitter (in fact, he insists you do).