As 2008 draws to a close, I’ve decided to award this year’s Most Controversial Rapper title to...drum roll, please...Soulja Boy!
The staggering success of Soulja Boy revealed a generational chasm in hip-hop, as thousands of young fans hailed him as a teenage god, while venerable rappers like Ice-T saw him as a sign of the apocalypse. Ironically, both these groups have one thing in common; they’re taking Soulja Boy way too seriously. The truth is that Soulja Boy’s simply the latest in a long line of teenage idols, from Frankie Avalon in the '60s to the New Kids on the Block in the '90s. In fact, while they may look different, the difference between the Jonas Brothers and Soulja Boy really isn’t that big. They both make enjoyable disposable music, they both inspire teenage girls to hyperventilate, and they’ll both be gone in five years.
Now, as Soulja Boy releases his second ridiculously named album iSouljaBoyTellem, he’s already confronting the same dilemma every teen idol eventually faces: How does Soulja Boy become Soulja Man? The transition to adulthood has killed many a teen sensation, but puberty doesn’t have to be a death sentence if the artist can adapt (as Chris Brown seems poised to do). Well, if iSouljaBoyTellEm is any indication, Soulja Boy’s days are numbered. iSouljaBoy alternates between transparent attempts to copy the ringtone magic of "Crank That" and awkward stabs at adopting a more thuggish image.
Don’t lie. You liked "Crank That." You couldn’t get the single’s obscenely catchy chorus out of your head, maybe there’s even a video of you breaking it down on YouTube. "Crank That" is the reason we’re talking about Soulja Boy now, so it’s no surprise that he spends much of iSouljaBoyTellEm trying to make a "Crank That Part II." The festivities start with "Bird Walk," a track whose bass-heavy background and sparkling high notes cover some familiar production background. Lyrically, Soulja Boy’s verses essentially just kill time until the chorus kicks in, a chant that slowly degrades from an energetic, “watch me do my bird walk” to an unintelligible, “wa me d ma bir wa.” It’s catchy, but not catchy enough to put him back on top.
On a similar tip is "Wit My Yums On," a track that proves Soulja Boy’s genius lies more in marketing campaigns than making music (Yums are his new shoe line). "Yums" heavily regulated beat is unapologetically simple, but it’s a symphony compared to the travesty that is "Hey You There." If there is a God, and he loves us, he wouldn't have let "Hey You There" get made. I’m beginning to lose my faith in God.
Where iSouljaBoyTellEm deviates from its predecessor is Soulja Boy’s first forays into a more thug image, spending the majority of his lyrical time rhyming about cash, cars, and chains. "Turn My Swag On" is a prototypical Southern banger, an epically sized track T.I. would have felt comfortable on. Instead of flexing some rhyme muscle, Soulja Boy inexplicably insists on singing for the duration of Swag, with less than stellar results. Most notably, Soulja Boy asks, “Why they hatin on me?” It’s a fair question, so let me answer it: there’s a difference between hating and telling the truth. I’m not a hater, but I am a truth teller, and that’s why I have no choice but to call "Gucci Bandana" an embarrassment, not so much for Soulja Boy but for Gucci Mane and Shawty Lo. How could two seemingly self-respecting men, men whose livelihood depends on their street cred, possibly think it was a wise move to trade verses with Soulja Boy? Those royalty checks can make a man do some strange things. But it’s the gunshot laden "Shopping Spree" that marks the biggest change in Soulja Boy’s image, a stomping track that has Soulja Boy veering dangerously close to d-boy territory. Soulja Boy just can’t pull of lyrical intimidation, he’d be much better sticking to tracks like the sweetly paced "Kiss Me Through The Phone," a single that should have his female fans swooning all over again, and has the biggest chance at serious radio success.
Ultimately, if Soulja Boy doesn’t stop making music so reliant on hooks and gimmicks, iSouljaBoyTellEm will mark the beginning of the end for the teen sensation. You live by the ringtone, you die by the ringtone. Just ask Mims.