As the genre collects some long-term history, hip-hop is starting to suffer from an age-confusion issue, embodied nowhere better than in the self-made teen sensation Soulja Boy.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”