Soulja Boy: Crankin' the Chain

No one understands the world of major-label rap better

Soulja Boy is not weird for the sake of being weird. He's weird for the sake of being lucrative. Which actually might make him post-postmodern, or maybe just post-post-Diddy. Either way, he's harnessed the power of the post-MySpace, post–Lonely Girl, Web 3.0 world better than anyone else in music. Of course, some may say, "But Radiohead just sold 1.2 million downloads in the first week," but one year ago, Thom Yorke was still the pinup boy of every indie-skewing individual on the planet, while Soulja Boy was just another one of the 300,000-plus unknown musicians on MySpace, YouTube and SoundClick.

Yet at one point this month, the Yahoo! home page featured blaring headlines trumpeting the 17-year-old Atlanta rapper's fifth nonconsecutive week at the top of the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart, an astonishing feat for any musician, let alone a senior in high school. And like most great successes, the reason behind Soulja Boy's rise to fame is both astonishingly simple and unsurprisingly complex. The short answer behind Soulja Boy's ability to move more units than recent efforts from Redman, Pharoahe Monch and Public Enemy combined lay just one click away, in the video for his smash hit, "Crank That."

Commencing with a shot of a perplexed label executive trying to figure out who this Soulja Boy character is and why his children are obsessed with his dance, the video for "Crank That" essentially summarizes Soulja Boy's mythology and rapid ascent from anonymity to the most popular artist in America (at least this month). Accordingly, there are numerous shots of Soulja Boy uploading videos to his YouTube page (now the 43rd most subscribed in the site's history, with nearly 1.5 million channel views) and inking a deal with Mr. Collipark, of Collipark Records.

In and of itself, the song is good in a mindless sort of way, with the inanity of its lyrics buoyed by a standard snap beat colored with an infectious and hypnotic steel-drum loop. Its true brilliance, however, lies in Soulja's instinctive marketing genius—and, of course, the deep-moneyed Interscope pockets behind him. Both "Crank That" and its accompanying instructional dance video, "How to Do the Soulja Boy Dance," serve as flawless exercises in brand building, featuring a ticker tape of come-ons to visit Soulja Boy's Web site (Souljaboytellem.com, which also serves as the actual name of his debut LP), his online merchandise store, the number to text to buy his ring tone, and—of course—the linchpin in any 2007 rapper's strategy: the MySpace page.

In a genre where every MySpace page seems more pimped-out than the Bishop Magic Don Juan drinking out of a bejeweled cup rolling through the seedy part of Santa Monica Boulevard in a lime-green Caddy, Soulja Boy's page is the Holy Grail. Enter and visitors are immediately treated to the sight of Soulja Boy, arms outstretched—triumphant—dipped head to toe in his Soulja Boy clothing line. Scrolling past the perfunctory streaming songs and profile pic reveals a 3-D cartoon character of Soulja Boy shilling his album; "Crank That" Soulja Boy signs made by his legion of female admirers; and YouTube videos of "Soulja Boy's Hottest Videos and Performances." Not to mention homemade videos involving the Soulja Boy dance and a separate reserved area for celebrities doing the Soulja Boy dance.

No one understands the murky, download-rampaged world of major-label rap better than Soulja Boy. After all, the kid was born in 1990. To his generation, old-school means a world pre-MySpace/YouTube. Unabashedly expressing his admiration for 50 Cent, Soulja Boy has taken his idol's mogul aspirations and draped them in the familiar aesthetics of the cash- and status-crazed world of the post–Cash Money/Bling era of hip-hop, while using the Net to create a grassroots fan base from scratch. Think of him as one part Lonely Girl, one part Bruce Barton and one part Dem Franchise Boyz, a product of the sort of blurry meld of art and commerce that has inexorably marched on since the day Andy Warhol made his first silk-screen, or at the very least the moment Run-DMC sewed up their first Adidas.

With his facility in the flattened Web 3.0 world, Soulja Boy essentially created an open source template that catapulted into a global phenomenon within a matter of months. Cynics who point out that he's just another product of the Interscope machine underestimate the hustle of the 100-plus videos Soulja Boy uploaded before Jimmy Iovine ever heard his name. And if you don't think the other labels haven't noticed and aren't already trying to find the "next Soulja Boy," then welcome back to Earth; hope that nine-year space flight went well. It remains to be seen whether Soulja Boy will turn out to be anything more than a one-hit wonder, but what's clear is that you should expect to see a lot more of this in the world of mass-market hip-hop, with more and more '90s-born, technology-weaned rappers attempting to follow Soulja Boy's blueprint. Weird.

 
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