Admit it. When Drake laid two bottle-popping verses over Soulja Boy’s recent mixtape cut, “We Made It,” you were perplexed.
What year is this?
Soulja Boy? What the hell ever happened to dude?
As a so-called “singles artist,” Soulja Boy hasn’t had a hit record since 2010. His 4.5 million Twitter followers (two million of whom he’s gained since 2011, even) have yet to yield a mainstream resurgence for the Atlanta based dance-trapper and viral godfather. Now that he’s tatted-up and swagged-out beyond infinity, we’re not entirely sure what to make of him, what to do with him, or that we even miss him.
But the kid is so prolific!
In the past three years, he’s dropped 20 mixtapes, with material alternating between Gameboy ethos, swag celebrations, swag doldrums, and swag reprises. He’s recruited notorious company—Riff Raff, Chief Keef, Lil B—and then burned a bunch of bridges. Beyond his diminishing SODMG clique and its attendant fanbase, Soulja Boy cranks mostly unnoticed, alone.
Free to experiment, tinker, reconfigure, and refine his swag alchemy, he’s been making some interesting music.
For a mainstream rap audience that couldn’t drown out Soulja Boy’s breakout hit, “Crank That,” (no matter how many of us might have wanted to) in 2008, the dance-trapper is by now rafted long afar. And he seems to be, in some ways at least, enjoying it. Free to experiment, tinker, reconfigure, and refine his swag alchemy, he’s been making some interesting music. This is not to suggest that Soulja Boy is a polished artist, or that he is, or ever will be properly “lyrical” in the hip-hop sense. With or without Autotune, there’s always that amateurish waver of his voice. His verses cling to his hooks for dear life. But, credit where due, those hooks are regularly catchy as hell. And his beats—while sounding cheaper and more quickly-made than anything Beats By the Pound ever came up with during Master P’s “volume! volume! volume!” heyday—have their odd charms. Listening to his May 2013 project, King Soulja, you get the sense that he recorded his tracks at a house party in progress. Like, in the bathroom while some frat bro was pounding on the door because he needed to puke. But in a good way.
Compared to the heavily ornamental pop anthems that Hot 97 rocks with these days—the tracks that’ll find love in the clubs—SouljaBoy’s recent work has erred toward left-field, left brain, #weirdo territory. Wheezy, winded flows over beats that sound like they’re being spun in reverse. Dazed ad-libs full of slurred codeine introspection. Take, for instance, the "Trap Swag" beat, and realize that Meek Mill would be shouting his head off over those snares, whereas Soulja Boy’s just having a little forgettable fun. Just a kid bullshitting his guests.
Say that rapping is not Soulja Boy’s strong suit, fine. But understand that lyricism and vocal delivery aren’t relevant metrics for him. And concede that Soulja Boy’s overall musical craft is unique, it’s impressive, it’s... not everyone’s cup of tea. But while Lil B is, perhaps, rap’s most famously iconoclastic eccentric Soulja Boy’s post-2010 output is actually less recklessly strange in comparison. (The earnest “World So Cold” lament is at least two steps more sensible than mumbling over a screwed Goo Goo Dolls loop. His last official album, 2009’s The De’Andre Way, on which Soulja Boy too frequently pretends to be Ludacris, stands as his most serious bid for rap normalcy—and proof enough that Soulja Boy is best off taking neither himself nor his critics too seriously.
Yes, Soulja Boy sounded like Patrice Wilson on a Teen Disney soundtrack on that Justin Bieber collabo in 2011. But he’s grown as an artist since then. Even if his concepts and themes are no less juvenile than “Crank That,” it’s his sound that’s matured, or at least stabilized. Low-energy, no-tension flexing. Oftentimes rushed, sometimes decidedly first-take, his verses burn slow (or, perhaps, fizzle cold for inexplicable stretches) but there’s a certain hallmark relaxation to his seamless lapsing back and forth between rapping and ad libs. When Soulja moans, “Living like a king, like a kiiiiiiiing,” he sounds lazy, bloated, gluttonous. Appropriately so—you can almost see the turkey leg in his hand.
Again: He’s no Meek Mill on the mic. He’s not even Waka Flocka Flame. And he’s too much a cheeky cherub to be lumped with the likes of Chief Keef. He’s no longer a pop radio insurgent, nor a Youtube don. But he’s also not an archangel harbinger of rap’s demise. Reported tension between Soulja Boy and his sophomore classmates—Chief Keef, Riff Raff—is the regrettable upshot of his creative isolation. Fresh off a Drake co-sign, even, Soulja Boy is a marginal star—and a flickering one, at that. But he's neither down nor out, really. He's just… different. You might not fully understand Soulja Boy. But if you're the type that might be prone to spending your late nights bullshitting with a bunch of faded weirdos on crusty-cushioned couch (and who doesn’t?), relax. Roll a blunt, and let the sweet, swag carry your cares away.
Justin Charity is a writer in Brooklyn, NY who shouts out Richmond and D.C. He has a website here and you can also find him @BrotherNumpsa