Surely the day will come when our children or their children will open a photo album and see some of us as younger versions of ourselves: massive solid-colored T-shirts swallowing our significantly smaller bodies and flapping in the wind behind us, only to be outdone by even baggier jeans, the open mouths at the bottom of them dragging in the dirt over our white sneakers. There has been no more interesting era for hip-hop and the fashion sense that surrounded it like the early to mid 2000s. An era that provided comical aesthetics, but an expanding range of regional artists who were figuring out how to make even longer lasting impact on pop charts while their fans cloaked themselves in outfits with cartoon characters on them or sports jerseys from an era before they were even born. There had to be a tipping point to this eventually — an artist who embodied the relentless hunger for a hit coupled with the somewhat comical aesthetics of the time, pushing everyone to the brink before we all craved a different direction.
Soulja Boy was inevitable and I must say that I know of no one who combs through MySpace to find new music anymore, but 10 years ago, my friends and I would spend evenings looking for the next “big thing,” having grown exhausted of the rap we’d hear on the radio or see splashed across television. The story of Soulja Boy’s debut album — appropriately titled Souljaboytellem.com — doesn’t begin with the album’s release, which sees its 10-year anniversary today. It begins in the spring of 2007, when a low-budget instructional dance video began crawling its way through the internet, first on MySpace, and then on YouTube. It showed three people in a cramped living room demonstrating the dance that accompanied a song that we would later know to be called “Crank That (Soulja Boy).” It isn’t clear whether or not Soulja himself is in the video, but it doesn’t appear that he is. By this point, Soulja had built a brand and a following on YouTube, where he’d host choppy and grainy videos of his raps. He was a teen sensation intimately concerned with facing people his age, meeting them where they were at, and leaving the door open for older crowds while still not bowing to them.
The Crank That Dance is not overly complicated and relies more on memory and coordination than rhythm itself. Part of its virality was, I think, because even a non-dancer could stumble their way towards glory if the party was packed enough and few people were watching. It was a paint-by-numbers, Dance Dance Revolution-type dance. Even if you looked bad doing it, you were still doing it. Particularly the dance’s largest move, which coincides with the biggest moment in the chorus: Soulja Boy lets out a booming “YOUUUUUU,” and raps the words “Crank that Soulja Boy,” and the dancer drifts across the floor, arms aloft, moving their wrist as if they are cranking the gears on an imaginary bike, traveling to someplace magic.
In the summer before the album was released, the dance was inescapable, so much so that the song itself became entirely secondary — simply a vehicle for the dance’s execution. What was missed in this was that the song was, in fact, infectious beyond the dance. Soulja Boy wasn’t necessarily an adequate lyricist, but his kind of carefree, plodding rhymes coupled with a chorus that found its way onto the tongue without much effort, made the song a perfect summer anthem. The fact that it carried with it some choreography that people at a party could get through even while inebriated only helped matters. The summer of 2007 was our generation’s MC Hammer moment. Indulging in the cheap joy of something that was there for the taking, even knowing that once it was gone, it would become a joke in the rearview mirror.
Souljaboytellem.com, the album, came out in October of 2007, with the single and dance still echoing through high school hallways, college dorm rooms, and the basements of house parties. I don’t know if the album was ever supposed to be good. It was released, almost surely in part to capitalize on Soulja’s infectious image. Soulja himself wasn’t immensely interesting, but what he was selling certainly was. He was selling youth, in an accessible package with easy entry points that didn’t cater to an older crowd, but also allowed an older crowd to participate in without being laughed at. Kriss Kross couldn’t get adults to figure out why they should do anything but laugh at the idea of wearing their clothing backwards, but Soulja Boy presented, instead, a brief feeling of youthful connection without asking for too much alteration of the typical adult aesthetic.
The problem was that the album simply wasn’t exactly working on a musical level. There is a lot to be said about music that becomes larger than just music, but at some point it must be touched on that Souljaboytellem.com, while a commercial success (going platinum,) was a bit of a sonic mess. It was what one would expect from a teenager who was the entire creative force behind their first album. Soulja Boy produced all but two tracks on Souljaboytellem.com and kept the features to the minimum, meaning that he was the star, producer, and director of his own show. It was a rough entry point to make.
The singles that followed “Crank That” saw gradually less success. “Soulja Girl” was a predictable teen love ballad that — like “Crank That” — had an earworm chorus which lifted it up to #32 on the Billboard Hot 100. “Yahhh!” was another instructional tune that didn’t have a dance but instead, a somewhat grating hook and an even more grating beat. The song peaked at #48 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. “Donk,” the album’s final single, didn’t chart at all, despite a video that featured a new dance that was, at best, very adjacent to the old dance. Some of this was logical. During the release of these singles, “Crank That” was still both on the charts and on the airwaves, and Soulja’s skillset wasn’t diverse enough to offer a difference in sound. If everything kind of sounds like a slightly worse version of your first thing, it makes sense that people would just stick with your first thing, doesn’t it?
Still, Souljaboytellem.com signaled an era in which a young artist could once again create something easily replicated, and done easily. Not everyone could do what Soulja Boy did — he built an entire image and career entirely on his own — but due to his grassroots inception using social media tools that we all had access to, he made it seem as if stardom for all was just a dance video away. Kids I knew would record themselves thinking up dance combinations to cobbled-together computer beats that sounded like trashcans rattling after a storm, and I say this to say that I found hope in their hope. Souljaboytellem.com was an album, but beyond that it was a window to some possibility that the young people I knew didn’t have access to otherwise. None of them were going to go on to be stars, of course. But they saw themselves in a star who, for all intents and purposes, was a flash. A moment, a summer, a tidal wave of colors and jewelry and a dance that could tremble an entire block.
None of the shirts I own now go too far beyond my waist and while wearing one such shirt in 2016, I watched a video of Soulja Boy holding a gun. He was 26-years-old then, yelling vague threats into a camera. Later that year, I watched a video of Soulja Boy on Instagram Live, engaged in a scuffle on someone’s block. Later, it was boxing; Soulja Boy was scheduled to fight in a boxing match with Chris Brown, for some reason (a match which Brown later backed out of.) The later-career of a still-young Soulja Boy has been a tapestry of these odd moments. He’s kept his eye towards business, signing a deal with World Poker Fund Holdings for an undisclosed amount that caps at $400 million. He still produces music, for others and himself, though those ventures have slowed down considerably. His albums — much like the singles off of his debut — have charted worse with each release. 2008’s iSouljaBoyTellem peaked at #43. 2010’s The DeAndre Way — seen as a more serious and “adult” effort — peaked at #90. 2015’s Loyalty didn’t chart at all.
In a lot of ways, Soulja Boy is a relic of a time passed. The boy who maybe got too much too fast and didn’t know how to handle growing up. And it is hard, I imagine. It is hard to influence so much in a short and small burst, and then watch the world move on without you.
At a party this past summer, I stood on a balcony and watched the lazily mingling masses outside. A DJ was spinning some top 40 hit of the moment while a couple or two tried their best to dance vigorously with a look of boredom on their faces. As I went to turn around, I heard the familiar tinkling that opens “Crank That,” and the still familiar sound of bodies excitedly crowding a dance floor and then drifting in unison, arms stretched to the side, riding that imaginary bike. And there is something in this: to have created a small joy that still populates a dance floor with limbs, even a decade later.