Under Piff'd Off, British writer Anthony Walker chats every month about the best in current mixtape culture.
Soulja Boy made a silly amount of money when he was a teenager with a catchy song and has spent the rest of his career in the shadow of it. Everyone knows 'Crank That (Soulja Boy)', some still know the dance too. It was an impressive achievement for a 16 year old with no major label backing. A simple yet invincible looped track produced on FruityLoops (now FL Studio), Soulja Boy was geared to the internet self’s promotion/paradoy culture and created a viral hit.
The track went to number 1 in the States and number 2 in the UK – selling over four and a half million copies and becoming the 14th best selling digital song ever. He managed to eek two Platinum albums worth of teeny bopper snap in two years but his third, 2010's 'DeAndre Way', was a comparative disappointment – selling about 13,000 in its first week whilst his previous two managed 46,000 and 117,000 respectively. He cited a poor promotional campaign from his label but the numbers are clear. He wanted to mature his image and sound, become a credible rapper as well as a radio and chart favourite, but all the star guests and advice from people like 50 Cent – who featured on the album's poor attempt at menace 'Mean Mug' - and Kanye West failed.
Soulja Boy began to release a stream of free mixtapes. His approach is scatter-gun and it's obvious that he's not a naturally very talented musician, but his openness and single-minded approach to recording have made him an unlikely source of some really innovative and exciting rap music. It’s worth remembering he previously worked with the now famous and justifiably celebrated Clams Casino while he was still literally sending out MP3s from his mum’s basement. His best songs in the past couple of years like 'Zan With That Lean', 'Came Out of the Water', 'LV's & Champagne', and 'Life is Good' are basically him sourcing exciting new producers Kwony Cash, Kid Art and Sonic Boy and using their soundscapes as a platform to look around at his vast wealth with a mixture of wonder and absurd humour. Getting rich so quickly and improbably seems to have left him lost, probably bored too, and he's constantly clambering onto the something new.
Most recently he's been trying to craft a harder edge to his persona. His latest mixtape 'Young & Flexin' , his fifth of the year, sounds as messy and ill-thought out as its cover art: a Google image-sourced perspective no-man's land featuring Soulja Boy, in a pose identical to a famous Nas press photo, surrounded by games consoles, luxury cars, blunts and Louie V luggage. It flits from the trap-lite of 'HUSLT' to widescreen electro like 'This Weed Loud' but its most telling moments are the opening and closing songs. 'Young and Flexin' begins with abrupt ad-libs for vocal warm ups and 'Foreign Cars' sounds like your ears unpopping after a long flight. Soulja Boy has latched to part wonderboy, part kid terror Chief Keef. You couldn't pick anyone better and Soulja's already fawned over him in the past on his version of '3Hunna' and more recently 'Ugly'.
'Foreign Cars', produced by Young Chop, is full of the crashing energy he's still perfecting as the leading producer in Chicago's drill explosion but Soulja Boy's attempt to copy the way Chief Keef tautens his delivery but slurs his verses and opens his vowel pronunciations sounds almost like a joke. Keef's style is lost on Soulja Boy because the key factor to its appeal, the grit and menace that've been glossed out of the highest echelons of rap in recent years, are attributes he just doesn't have.
Crucially, however, there's little cynicism in his bandwagon jumping. He just seems desperate to be considered relevant by association; and whilst he's more convincing talking about video games than he is about gangs his claims are so flat you could discredit them as soon as they're uttered. An impulse to record whilst having not a lot to say defines much of a Soulja Boy mixtape and, at times, he can perfect the trend: babbling in cliché for a few songs then hitting on a expression of just what he's feeling at that moment – no matter how joyously ridiculous it is. 'Young & Flexin' falls to the miss part of the hit/miss ratio but it's a necessary by-product of his recording process and, for all its cartoonish aspects, it is a lot of fun, and another insight into the mind of this unique American artist.