You might have to be 12-years-old and growing up caddy-corner to a Captain D’s to totally understand this, but of all the compelling rap records that roared out of 2007—Lil Wayne’s umpteenth mixtape, UGK’s last Cadillac ride, etc.—not one was nearly as dissonant, portentous, and in some sense revolutionary as… prepare to suck your teeth out in disdain… that feckless Soulja Boy dance sensation, “Crank Dat”. It made the “Macarena” and the “Cha-Cha Slide” look like, well, let’s not use the term ‘child’s play’. Because what makes the Soulja Boy outlier so challenging is that it was nothing but child’s play. One morning, you wake up and God’s most powerful nation is taking her dance cues from a swaggering, bored/web-surfing 17-year-old escaping the ennui of his native Mississippi. On a cosmic level, you’ve got to appreciate that mass regression, even if you believe that hip-hop, by virtue of its lyrical focus, should be tackling concrete social ills, raising ecological awareness, promoting vegetarianism, toppling the Bush regime, bringing back the turntable, and offering salient advice on the sub-prime mortgage crisis. Or maybe you just couldn’t understand the Southern slang.
Whatever the reason, everyone from the comment section critics of the iTunes music store to the established online hip-hop websites approached the Soulja Boy record the way Rush Limbaugh would approach an Andy Warhol movie: clueless, but apoplectic by default. Some took the innocuous dance sensation as a harbinger of cultural barbarism/decline, while others speculated that Soulja suffers from severe mental retardation. With the expectations game set so predictably high for a young black male, it makes sense that his second at-bat (“Soulja Girl”) came as a cautious affair that coos carefully over comfortable snap music territory: Boy meets girl, one teaches the other to snap… snap. Nothing T-Pain wouldn’t audition for Barbara Walters over a warm saucer of milk. “Soulja Girl” is the only track on Soulja Boy’s debut, souljaboytellem.com, that even acknowledges T-Pain’s cozy corner of the club, whereas the other 16 opt for hyper-aggressive, bow-swanging, call-and-response, post-crunk dance routines. It’s also Soulja Boy’s only track that orbits a melody, specifically a hauntingly familiar synth pattern—familiar because it’s only a few tweaks shy of the right hand’s role in “Linus and Lucy”, Vince Guaraldi’s rollicking piano theme for the Peanuts gaggle.
As far as melodic coincidences go, that’s a fairly revealing Freudian slip. The young would-be “superman” might prefer comic characters who breeze through the air and pocket a powerful alter-ego. But considering the moral uncertainty and nervous glee of his clamorous debut, the wunderkind clearly belongs in the funny pages alongside Charlie Brown. Like Peanuts, the panes of Soulja’s comic world are eerily absent of parental figures. In tandem with Hurricane Chris, he represents a new paradigm in boyhood rap aspirations: stardom with little guidance or supervision. He produces his own beats, twists the dials on his own recording studio, and in a big blow to that “father knows best” maxim, he accomplished the OK Go overnight success story entirely without major label supervision—just viral marketing via MySpace and Soundclick, plus a contagious YouTube video. Not surprisingly, when you talk about an artist who built his own image and fanbase from the back of a high school computer class, you’re dealing with an unfiltered, uncensored teenage boy, including all the self-indulgence and masturbation metaphors that come along with that program. For example, what responsible parent, mogul, or ghostwriter would ever authorize his bawdy catch phrase/sexual slumber party prank “superman that hoe”? Certainly Lil Bow-Wow’s family-oriented handlers would have never let that line leave the bedroom, not only because it appeals to prurient interests, but because he and Lil Romeo starred on decidedly post-adolescent Thug Life labels, where gleeful immaturity threatens a gangsta’s mystique.
In that sense, Southern rap had Soulja Boy in the oven since the sweat first trickled down the collective balls of Lil Jon and his Eastside Boyz. When rap’s Mecca sailed south, the age focus slid downward, too. The subject matter wandered from a gangsta’s version of manhood and professionalism—i.e. the drug trade—to that co-ed playground where drinks are served. The tone became less bleak, more innocent. The pathology became less criminal, more ADHD. Standard group names changed from ridiculously corporate entities like Murder Inc. or Roc-a-Fella Records to a maternity ward full of Ying Yang Twinz, Youngbloodz, and Eastside Boyz, not to mention Shop Boyz, Hot Boyz, Dem Franchize Boyz, and the 504 Boyz, many of whom, when they did sing about the drug trade, mostly sang about Dope Boyz or Duffle Bag Boyz. Plus the origins changed. If literary East Coast hip-hop draws from the dozens—a late-childhood prep-sport for adolescence—then Southern rap (including bounce, crunk, and snap) draws from an even younger, less male-exclusive past-time: the playground chants and double-dutch patterns that ethnomusicologist Kyra Gaunt calls the backbone of black popular music. Meanwhile, as East Coast men fretted over realness and authenticity, Southern crunk stars screeched their way into an absurd realm of self-parody and mask-wearing—after all, anyone who continuously schleps around a diamond-studded chalice the size of a poodle is nothing short of a character actor, which might be what Dave Chappelle was getting at.
But in a larger sense, the explosive popularity of that Soulja Boy dance partially reflects a change in how America raises our young. The year that gave us “superman that hoe” was also the first year in American history in which married households constituted a minority. The nature of parental authority has changed, not only because the job is left to more divorced and single parents, but also because AIM, social networking, and the proliferation of cell phones have circumvented parental control.
Soulja Boy is a baby of America’s broken marriage system. He began tinkering with the beat-making program Fruity Loops after his mom shipped him from their home in Atlanta to his dad’s residence in what is probably, with all due respect, a very boring part of Mississippi. Wal-Marts and stuff. Whatever moxie Soulja Boy left Georgia with, he re-directed into his computer screen, turning his first singles “Bapes” and “Yaaah” into mini-MySpace and Soundclick sensations among ever widening concentric circles of friends. By the time “Crank Dat” broke and Interscope picked up on his popularity, his dance video on YouTube was arguably as pervasive as the single. Somewhere, major labels pay college graduates to orchestrate those kinds of things, but with Soulja Boy the buzz flowed from the direct interaction between artist and audience—an online interaction between a single 17-year-old, and a whole network of 12-, 14-, 15-year-olds. He is the end conclusion to what was envisioned by peer-to-peer file sharing. His boast in “Don’t Hate Me”—“It’s amazing what I did with a mic and the Internet”—might be the most self-aware, modest truism trumpeted by any rapper last year.
What’s equally amazing, in a Lord of the Flies fashion, is how his awkward feet fill a teacher’s shoes. His call-and-response patterns are about education in the way that James Brown’s and Sam Cooke’s were about work. Except that he, the oppressed student, plays headmaster. He dictates dance moves to school kids only a few grades below him, barking out Pavlovian hooks with an emphasis on memorization and regurgitation that would make No Child Left Behind proud. He squeezes the testing term “instructional” into the title of his “How to Crank That” YouTube video. When he does acknowledge the existence of real, salaried teachers (something most rappers never get around to), he’s telling said professionals what to put on his report card: “Throw some D’s on that bitch.”
“Simon Says” is one thing when the lesson is the “Cha-Cha Slide”, taught by an Old Skool Chicago DJ who sounds like he could be in his 40s. But with Soulja Boy, the dance directions are coming from a gleefully confused whiz kid who peppers his curriculum with immature, objectifying statements like the awful “Booty Meat” (“Girl, shake that booty meat / That booty meat”). He is an authority figure, somebody in a position to “tell ‘em”, but one who is simultaneously steeped in the language of both childhood and adolescence, not ready to leave the playground chants or the “booty meat” behind. His signature dance move, the Superman, is a collection of conflicting id-desires pulled from across the age spectrum: he wants us to fly across the dance floor, masturbate on a young woman’s back, and imagine ourselves in a billowing Superman cape all at once.
Clearly then, hip-hop has some age confusion. Where 2006 rejected Kingdom Come, Jay-Z’s attempts to wax grandfatherly about the minutiae of retirement, the free market, and tennis, 2007 accepted American Gangsta, his return to the early days of desperation and drugs, all conveniently predicated on an box office fantasy. The precocious Lil Wayne continued to spout short, staccato rhymes like he just discovered the concept, under the perverse tutelage of his “daddy”—a grown-ass man named Baby. Meanwhile, the teacher calling the dance moves was a teenager whose stunna shades and XXXL white tee overwhelm his meager frame.
In this whirlwind of adults masquerading the parts of children, and vice-versa, the solid conclusion is that Southerners are yanking the artfrom back to its basics, back from that post-adolescent introspective thug thing towards the elemental child’s play that has always powered hip-hop’s radical, widespread appeal. You can rant on iTunes about “Soulja Girl” all you’d like, but hip-hop isn’t dead: it’s only being born again. Which is why (when I step up in the club) they holler, “Hay, bay-bay.”