Let Soulja Boy Be Great

A rap pariah seeks legitimacy on The DeAndre Way, and nearly gets it

It feels like I oughtta cool my heels in a Red Roof Inn until Witness Protection can come scoop me up just for uttering this—you know what the Ayatollahs of Real Hip-Hop think about Soulja Boy. But his third album, The DeAndre Way, frequently thrills me. Particularly, given that I'm a human repercussion of the same Atlanta public-education system from whence the rapper himself came, his choice to kicks matters off with "First Day of School": a perfectly unthuggish threshold morning about which every grown-ass rapper, no matter how many foes he's theoretically bodied, is posturing if he claims he never recalls it with a humbling, emasculating fondness. Soulja Boy remembers it well, of course, and he rides up with the tags still hanging off his accoutrements: "Gucci socks?!/Polo draws?!/Awww, man, he craaazay!"

Sheesh, I love this kid—er, man, now, but I'll grapple with that discrepancy at the next exit. Love his drawl, his stage charm, his swag—ay!! Love the "ay!" thing, love the way he drives y'all maniacs into the comments section where you revoke his license to exist, love the way his pandemonium beats expose hip-hop's patty-cake roots via handclaps and hollers, love the verdict his knack for rote repetition renders on No Child Left Behind. However obvious his limitations, give America's most controversial (ergo respected) kid rapper credit for crafting an aggresso-crunk sound without actual assault charges, broken glass, or sharp elbows. He Fruity Looped a fluke hit with Doug Funnie sensibilities and, three years later, somehow remains a controversial/respected player in rap's realness-tested closed-circuit bloodsport whose "whole project," to quote Greg Tate, "may be the triumph of obsessive African stylin' over European savagery."

Which rewinds me to the triumph of those Gucci socks. I know, materialism, SMH. But, listen: "Hat gon' match my shoes—shoes!/Shirt gon' match my belt—belt!" This is Soulja mentally garbing himself for a record whose aspirations will vastly exceed his abilities. He will try, and flop, and therefore half-succeed. On the bleep-blooping Kraftwerky rhapsody to success Icarus-ly titled "Fly," he will attempt two-, even four-syllable rhymes, then revert back to rhyme/time/grind. Musically, he will graft actual violin onto "School," and it will sound forced, but the rowdy, disorganized noise on the rest of DeAndre will mostly fall, as if mercifully controlled by Crunk Chaos Theory, somewhere between wacky and wilin'.

All this runs a needless risk for a media gig as banally profitable as Sarah Palin's. Bottle his violin/internal-rhyme aspirations and Soulja's role is easier to play than even Fonzie's, who eventually overreached his own two-dimensional aaaay persona by, well, you know what the Fonz did, and you wonder sometimes if DeAndre isn't skiing nigh on the same jaws. The record's low points bare his jarring thirst for recognition, considering all he's accomplished since the 10th grade. On the histrionic "Grammy," he and croaking cohort Ester Dean itemize in bald detail what he wants. "Am I not good enough?" Dean caws, seemingly on his behalf, into the beat's bittersweet symphony. Soulja claims the track made him cry, which is one way to admit how much this arch-dramatization of the Soulja Story ("I done seen a lot of thangs," etc.) sabotages his unflappable swag. The wiz-kid is rapping for the Angel of History now, and it leaves this record feeling less like his locker-room-drumming debut and more like the straight-to-grocery-store biopic on how that first record transpired: the Get Rich or Die Trying to his Get Rich or Die Trying.

Speaking of which, let's talk about 50 Cent's cameo here, on "Mean Mugs." The felonious beat alone constitutes a threat to Soulja's comic persona, with horror-flick piano and funereal church bells jammed into its gun chamber, alongside actual sampled bloodhounds barking. Somebody brings up 9/11. Soulja unconvincingly threatens to "split ya," but trades off to 50, who specifies the murder weapon: "ice pick." Brrr. Hearing Soulja follow that felt like watching my daughter double-dutch in the shadow of a gargoyle.

Chisel him a Grammy, I guess, for quixotic stylistic adventurism. Contrast that track with his and Trey Songz's buttery come-on, "Hey Cutie." Next, stack that against the vintage Soulja bedlam (two seemingly random schoolmates, growling synths) of "30 Thousand 100 Million"—which is not, I don't think, um, finished?—and you finally glean that the genre-spanning ground he's covering here is mostly a ploy to stall his existential question: What, precisely, does the world need from Soulja Boy?

"Pretty Boy Swag" offers the clearest response, over haunted-mansion piano warbles as sinister as Soulja's crush on his own clean-cut chic is innocent. Take its stunted, whispered verse as a preening millennial reminder that showmanship cometh before penmanship. But what rap really needs him for is effigy, right? Depending on what trajectory you're coming at America, he's either the villain scheming to paste linens onto your dozing daughter's vertebrae (not what he says he meant by "superman," for the record) or the embarrassment whose stylin' rap gatekeepers often willfully misinterpret as shufflin'. But let a young man have his swag. "Watch me push the stunt button," he requests on "Boom," while sirens portend uncertain consequences, like he's Desmond in the Hatch. I increasingly doubt I'll crank much of whatever comes next from this self-enamored rascal nearing the limits of his gig, but he's had his uses: He's vexed all the right sticklers and coined ample catchy hooks during the commercial breaks. "All I do is stunt," he reiterates, and you tell me: Isn't that enough?

 
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