The Number Ones

September 15, 2007

The Number Ones: Soulja Boy’s “Crank That (Soulja Boy)”

Stayed at #1:

7 Weeks

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.

You’re a teenager in 2005 or 2006, and you’ve got a song stuck in your head. You like that song. You’d like to hear more of it. Naturally, you don’t head out to a music store and buy the CD. That mode of consumption isn’t entirely dead yet, but for your generation, it might as well be. You’re probably not going to buy the MP3 on iTunes, either. Why would you? You can have the same song for free. A whole lot of peer-to-peer downloading services are out there, and you can just click over to LimeWire and get the song for free just as easily. But when you download the song, you might discover that the song in question isn’t the big pop hit that you had in mind. Instead, you might hear some little kid bellowing simplistic rap catchphrases over an even more simplistic homemade beat. You might be annoyed, but you might also remember that kid’s name.

The kid is Soulja Boy, and he makes sure that you’ll remember his name because he shouts it all the time. Soulja Boy has made a habit out of this. Working on rudimentary beatmaking software in his bedroom, Soulja Boy makes dozens of songs — maybe hundreds of them — and he posts them online every day. Soulja posts those songs under his name on every site available to him: SoundClick, MySpace, YouTube. But Soulja Boy also intentionally mislabels his own songs and puts them up on sites like LimeWire, tricking other kids into downloading his songs by accident. Soulja isn’t going to make any money by faking his way onto hard drives, but he’s going to make sure that a whole lot of people hear his music, whether they want it or not. This impulse will serve him well.

In 2007, you, the kid who got suckered into downloading some Soulja Boy song or other, will watch in amazement as a Soulja Boy song — a song every bit as simple as the one he got you to download — races up the Billboard Hot 100 and becomes the biggest song in America. The song is strange and hypnotic and energetic, and it causes every adult within earshot to seize up with anger. Even the adults who grew up with rap music, who love rap music, will hate this song. But you, the kid Soulja Boy’s age, might shake your head in bemused amazement. This kid did it. He won. You can’t help but admire the hustle. And then maybe you’ll film yourself trying to do his dance.

Soulja Boy was not the first artist born in the ’90s to top the Billboard Hot 100. That historic distinction goes instead to Sean Kingston, who is six months older than Soulja Boy and who took “Beautiful Girls” to the top about a month before Soulja Boy got there. But Sean Kingston did not create a generation gap. He teamed up with an older pop producer and sang over a sample of a much older pop classic. Soulja Boy, by contrast, threw every piece of received music-industry wisdom in the trash, and he flew to #1 through expert timing and sheer obnoxious hustle.

The list of artists who were the first to be born in their decade and to score a #1 hit is weirdly instructive: Tiffany, Hanson, Billie Eilish. That list is arbitrary, but all those artists present signs of new generations coming to power. I think Soulja Boy deserves to be on that list. I think he belongs on there.

Soulja Boy was born DeAndre Cortez Way in Chicago, and he moved to Atlanta when he was a little kid. (Glenn Medeiros’ “She Ain’t Worth It” was the #1 song in America when Soulja was born.) As a teenager, Soulja Boy moved back and forth between his mother’s house in Atlanta and his father’s in Batesville, Mississippi. Batesville was where Soulja started making music. Soulja Boy’s uncle gave him a bootlegged demo of FL Studio, the ultra-simple Belgian beatmaking program once known as FruityLoops. In 2005, the 14-year-old Soulja Boy registered a page on a music-based social network called SoundClick. Amazingly, Soulja Boy’s SoundClick page is still online. The first song that he ever uploaded was an ultra-rudimentary bounce track called “Leap Frog.”

“Leap Frog” sounds a little like the classic Cash Money style the same way that a random mid-’60s garage band sounded a little like the Rolling Stones. But Soulja Boy quickly absorbed the sound of Atlanta snap music, which often sounded just as cheap and simple as the stuff that he was making on his own at home. Soulja’s music spoke to the SoundClick community, which was mostly kids. Soulja Boy was making silly novelty songs, and when you’re 15, there are few things more entertaining than a silly novelty song from someone your own age. Soulja later told Vulture, “I had this song called ‘Doo Doo Head.’ It was this stupid comedic song, and after a few weeks, it went #1 on the charts, and everyone started coming to my page, looking for new music.”

Soulja Boy’s SoundClick page had a bunch of ways that you could get in touch with him. It had his phone number. It had his Xbox Live gamer tag. It also had links to Soulja’s MySpace and YouTube pages — pages that Soulja registered as soon as he had access to those sites. Soulja also wrote his own Wikipedia bio, and he posted those fake MP3s to LimeWire. Soulja was a native of the internet — a kid so young that he couldn’t remember a time before the internet existed. He knew how to use those sites to his advantage. Soon enough, Soulja Boy had a local following, and he was making enough playing club gigs and selling song downloads on SoundClick that he quit his part-time Burger King job.

Early in 2007, the 16-year-old Soulja Boy first posted the song known as “Crank That (Soulja Boy).” Soulja produced the track itself, and every sound on the beat — the tingly steel-drum loop, the itchy hi-hats, the kickdrum boom, the echoing snaps — was available on the unregistered demo version of FL Studio. Over that elemental and oddly compelling beat, Soulja shouted catchphrases that would’ve been utterly opaque to most of the people who heard the song. To get anything out of “Crank That,” you had to know that Soulja Boy was talking about different dances. He was also rapping in the kind of flow that you only use when you’re first learning how to rap: “You catch me at yo’ local party/ Yes, I crank it everyday/ Haters gettin’ mad ’cause I got me some Bathing Apes.”

Even today, “Crank That (Soulja Boy)” is striking in its weird energy. There’s no nuance to Soulja Boy’s rapping, but there’s a commanding heft to his voice. He multitracks himself, making himself sound like an army, and then he barks out commands: “Youuuuuu crank that Soulja Boy! Youuuuuu crank that Soulja Boy!” Nobody knew what that meant, so Soulja Boy had to tell them. In a dance-instructional video posted online shortly thereafter, Soulja Boy stands in an empty swimming pool with some friends, demonstrating all the oddly intricate steps that you have to know if you’re going to crank that Soulja Boy.

Soulja calls his video “the instructional DVD” — a sign that even digital-native kids like Soulja Boy still spoke and thought in physical-media terms in 2007. But the branding is clear and obvious. Soulja Boy’s friends all stand behind him in matching Soulja Boy shirts. Soulja Boy himself wears sunglasses with the words “Soulja Boy” written across the lenses in Wite-Out. Those glasses became Soulja’s visual trademark. In the new House Party reboot that came out earlier this year, there’s a joke about the Illuminati keeping those sunglasses on display in their meeting room, alongside Drake’s rhyme book and Kanye West’s jawbone.

The Soulja Boy dance has just the right level of difficulty. There’s a fair amount involved — leg-crossing, lean-wid-it snapping, motorcycle-revving backwards hops, the lean-forward Superman pose. That last one caused a whole lot of conversation once the song blew up. Within the context of “Crank That,” it’s pretty clear what it means to Superman that ho — or, if you prefer, to Superman that, ohhhh. You just lean forward like you’re flying through the air. But oral tradition soon claimed that “Superman that ho” meant something else entirely.

Rumor had it that “Superman that ho” was a very specific sex act: You splooge on a girl’s back, and then you throw a bedsheet onto her, the idea being that the sheet will stick to her back like a cape. Soulja Boy has never really addressed the meaning of “Superman that ho.” At the time, he would simply say that it didn’t really mean anything and that people make up all kinds of stuff on the internet. He should know. He made up stuff on the internet all the time. So maybe Soulja Boy had his own ideas about what “Superman that ho” meant, or maybe he didn’t.

Throughout pop history, songs have rode to success on the fumes of dirty-lyrics rumors. In a lot of ways, “Crank That (Soulja Boy)” is an inheritor of grand pop-music traditions. Like “Louie Louie” and “Mony Mony” and plenty of other songs, “Crank That” was the beneficiary of dirty-lyrics rumors. Like “The Twist” and “The Hustle” and plenty of others, it’s also a dance-craze song. The “Crank That” dance was difficult enough that kids wanted to show off when they’d mastered it, and many thousands of those kids posted their own YouTube videos of themselves attempting the Soulja Boy dance. The song was simple enough to record that many of them also recorded their own variations on the track, with their own twists on the dance. Those variations spread across the internet: “Crank Dat Batman,” “Crank Dat Spiderman,” “Crank Dat Aquaman,” “Crank Dat Urkel,” “Crank Dat Howard Dean.”

“Crank That (Soulja Boy)” was a genuine underground grassroots phenomenon — something that was huge among kids, especially in the Southeast, and totally unknown to adults. Eventually, though, a certain adult noticed. Mr. Collipark, the Atlanta rap producer once known as DJ Smurf, got his start producing for the Ying Yang Twins, the Atlanta crunk duo. Collipark produced the Ying Yang Twins’ 2000 breakout “Whistle While You Twurk,” which peaked at #74 and which might’ve been the first place that I ever encountered the word “twerk.” (It didn’t have a standardized spelling yet.)

In the next few years, the Ying Yang Twins racked up a bunch of club-rap hits. The duo had their biggest moment as guests on Lil Jon & The East Side Boyz’ “Get Low,” a #2 hit in 2003, and Lil Jon also produced the duo’s #9 hit “Salt Shaker” that same year. (“Get Low” is a 10. “Salt Shaker” is an 8.) But Collipark produced most of the Ying Yang Twins’ hits, including the extremely horny and vaguely threatening 2005 track “Wait (The Whisper Song),” which probably helped invent the whole style of snap minimalism. A year later, Collpark produced Bubba Sparxxx’s very silly Ying Yang Twins collab “Ms. New Booty,” which made it to #7. (It’s a 6.)

The Ying Yang Twins were signed to Collipark Music, the label that Mr. Collipark founded in 1999, and Collipark took the duo to TVT Records. Mr. Collipark also signed Hurricane Chris, the teenage Shreveport, Louisiana rapper who had his own snap hit with “A Bay Bay” earlier in 2007. (“A Bay Bay” peaked at #7. It’s a 7.) Collipark had found his lane. He focused on the Southern dance-rap that was popular among kids and that nobody else in the industry took remotely seriously. Collipark heard about Soulja Boy from his own children. At first, Collipark couldn’t understand how this teenager had so many views online. He thought it might’ve been fake. But he checked around with other music-business types in Atlanta, and they kept telling him the same thing: They had no idea who Soulja Boy was, but kids kept asking about him.

Eventually, Mr. Collipark signed Soulja Boy to Collipark Music. Like Sean Kingston, Soulja Boy had been effectively discovered through MySpace, which was a whole new phenomenon. But Kingston signed with a pop producer, who developed him into a pop artist. Collipark didn’t do anything to develop Soulja Boy. Soulja’s song was already blowing up, and Collipark wanted to keep him the way that he already was. Collipark helped Soulja Boy record his debut album, which had the extremely self-promotional title, but Soulja Boy produced most of the album himself. Collipark just helped him re-record the songs that were already on Soulja’s MySpace page. Then Collipark took Soulja Boy to Interscope, and the big-label machinery got behind a song that was already becoming a sensation on its own.

The “Crank That (Soulja Boy)” video tells the whole origin story. At the beginning, Mr. Collipark is wearing a three-piece suit while sitting in what appears to be a home office. Collipark’s kids are in there, and they’re doing the Soulja Boy dance. Collipark asks who Soulja Boy is, and his kids can’t believe that he doesn’t know. So Collipark sets off on a trek to sign Soulja Boy, and he succeeds. In the meantime, Soulja Boy does his dance, and we see fellow young-folks stars like Bow Wow and former B2K leader Omarion doing the same thing. While all this is happening, kids around Atlanta send each other AOL instant messages and watch videos of what’s happening on their flip phones — an early look at the virality that would soon become the main driving force of the entire music industry.

2007 was the year that ringtone sales peaked, bringing in nearly a billion dollars. Soulja Boy was loud and brash and at least a little bit annoying. He was a human ringtone, and he was made for his moment. “Crank That (Soulja Boy)” went from a viral phenomenon to a genuine hit. In New York, where I was living, Hot 97 DJs would complain bitterly, on air, about “Crank That,” and then they’d play “Crank That.” They had no choice. It was what the kids wanted. Older rappers — Method Man, Snoop Dogg, Ice-T — fumed about how Soulja Boy was not a real rapper. Rather than getting angry or defensive, Soulja Boy just posted a YouTube video where he clowned Ice-T at great length. He did it pretty entertainingly, too: “You was born before the internet was created! How the fuck did you even find me?”

Soulja Boy knew that he was annoying older people, and this didn’t bother him. He liked it. He fed off of it. This was internet-kid mindset — trolling before people knew what “trolling” was. Some older rappers embraced Soulja Boy; Kanye West, Soulja’s chief rival for chart space in September of 2007, posted encouraging things about Soulja on his blog. But Soulja Boy was a generationally divisive figure, and he was a sign of things to come. I wrote a chapter about “Crank That (Soulja Boy)” in my book, and I didn’t even have to mull it over. It was a total no-brainer. Soulja Boy represented the future. The story of major labels trying to catch up to the internet would be the story of at least the next 16 years of popular music.

If Soulja Boy had been a one-hit wonder, he still would’ve carved out a place in pop history. It looked like he might’ve been headed in that direction. The album definitely sounded like a thrown-together rush-job to cash in on a random-ass hit. Soulja Boy played an unconvincing loverman on the R&B-flavored follow-up “Soulja Girl,” and that one peaked at #32. I much preferred the single “Yahhh!,” a spirited ode to the joy of yelling in people’s faces that peaked at #48.

But Soulja Boy kept working. Later in 2007, he co-produced his protege V.I.C.’s #29 hit “Get Silly,” which is exactly as silly as the title promises. I really like that song. In 2008, Soulja Boy released his follow-up album iSouljaBoyTellem and got to #3 with the fluffy, disposable puppy-love song “Kiss Me Thru The Phone.” (It’s a 3.)

“Kiss Me Thru The Phone” put up the chart numbers, but I was much more into the confident, minimal club tracks that Soulja Boy released over the next few years: “Pretty Boy Swag,” “Turn My Swag On,” “Speakers Going Hammer,” the Gucci Mane/Shawty Lo collab “Gucci Bandana.” Those songs weren’t all chart hits — though “Turn My Swag On” did make it to #19 — but they had energy and momentum behind them. Soulja Boy kept his Bugs Bunny prankster edge, too; witness him wiping his nose with a pile of money in the “Turn My Swag On” video.

Hits or no hits, Soulja Boy’s albums sold terribly. Soulja just wasn’t built for the dying CD economy, and he eventually parted ways with Interscope and released an absolutely staggering number of online mixtapes. A few years after “Crank That,” Soulja remained a canny anticipator and appropriator of online trends. He was early to embrace tons of rappers who were blowing up online: Lil B, Odd Future, Riff Raff, Chief Keef. Sometimes, Soulja tried to sign those artists to his label. Sometimes, he just took bits and pieces of their styles.

Drake and Nicki Minaj, two artists who will eventually appear in this column, both learned some tricks from Soulja Boy, and they both rapped over his beats. The Migos, a group who will eventually appear in this column, blew up on the strength of “Versace,” the 2013 single that peaked at #99 on the Hot 100. Two years before the Migos released that single, though, Soulja Boy rapped over the same Zaytoven-produced beat that the Migos used on “Versace.” Soulja just used that track on “Teach Me How To Cook: OMG Part 2,” a mixtape track that was not destined to become a hit.

In recent years, Soulja Boy has been pushing a series of increasingly sketchy business ventures, trying to sell sneakers and hookahs and gaming consoles. But even without making hits, Soulja Boy still kept going viral. During a Breakfast Club interview in 2019, for instance, Soulja Boy accused Drake of stealing his style and also yelled the word “Drake” in a very funny way. That video became its own kind of hit.

Soulja Boy continues to insist on his own importance, and he’s right about that. If Soulja Boy hadn’t discovered the possibilities of the internet, someone else would’ve come along, but Soulja Boy truly crystallized his moment. That moment was finite, and Soulja Boy now faces bigger problems. In the past few years, Soulja Boy has been sued twice for physical and sexual assault. Just last week, he was one of a group of celebrities charged with artificially inflating crypto prices. Soulja Boy has never been a character worth admiring. He did change the world, though. He also came up with a fun dance and a fun song about that dance.

GRADE: 9/10

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BONUS BEATS: In 2008, a very young Timothée Chalamet was one of the many kids posting videos of themselves dancing to “Crank That (Soulja Boy).” In Chalamet’s video, which I’m tempted to call “Crank That Paul Atreides,” Chalamet is the one in the blue hat. Here, look:

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Jazmine Sullivan quoting Soulja Boy’s “youuuuuu” at the end of her 2008 single “Bust Your Windows”:

(“Bust Your Windows” peaked at #31, and it’s still Jazmine Sullivan’s highest-charting single.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the time-capsule scene from Richard Linklater’s 2014 film Boyhood where Ellar Coltrane and friends ride around while listening to Travis Barker’s rock remix of “Crank That (Soulja Boy)”:

(The highest-charting single from Travis Barker’s band Blink-182 is “All The Small Things,” which peaked at #6 in 2000. It’s a 10.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: The teenage Atlanta rapper Silentó, who’s now in jail and awaiting a murder trial, had his own dance-craze hit with 2015’s “Watch Me (Whip/Nae Nae),” and he quoted pretty extensively from “Crank That (Soulja Boy)” on that song. Here’s the video:

“Watch Me (Whip/Nae Nae),” Silentó’s only Hot 100 hit, peaked at #3. It’s a 6.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Last year, my favorite episode of the final season of Atlanta was the one called “Crank Dat Killer.” In that episode, there’s a serial killer stalking anyone in Atlanta who ever made a “Crank Dat” video. Bryan Tyree Henry’s character Paper Boi is understandably stressed, since he once made “Crank Dat Jimmy Neutron.” Here’s Paper Boi’s video:

And here’s the scene where Paper Boi calls Soulja Boy to ask his advice on dealing with the Crank Dat Killer:

(Atlanta creator Donald Glover isn’t in that scene, but he’ll eventually appear in this column.)

Ayy, I got this new book for y’all called The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal The History Of Pop Music. It’s out now via Hachette Books, and it’s got a whole chapter on “Crank That (Soulja Boy).” Youuuuuu buy that book here.

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