Hip-hop wouldn’t be where it is today without Soulja Boy. It might seem like that statement is as outlandish as the ones Soulja himself made about Kanye West and Drake on The Breakfast Club earlier today, but once you take a second to think about it, it’s true.
Back in 2007, when the cocky, colorful, and yes, influential young rapper was just DeAndre Cortez Way, a 17-year-old kid from Atlanta, rap was on the ropes. Sure, that was the year the genre delivered classics like Graduation and American Gangster, but it was also the midst of the biggest commercial downturn for the music industry and rap, still one of the newest and most niche genres despite its popularity on the radio, was hit the hardest.
Of the 20 best-selling albums that year, only two were from hip-hop artists — Kanye West and Jay-Z. Rap music was beset by rampant bootlegging, dwindling promotion budgets, and the general air of panic as the recording industry suddenly had to contend with file sharing and nosediving profits as consumers shifted their listening habits from physical sales to digital downloads, and it didn’t seem like anyone knew exactly how to fix it.
Enter Soulja Boy Tell ‘Em.
This isn’t to say that Soulja Boy singlehandedly saved the day. 2007 also saw the advent of the dreaded “360” deal and the rise of cheap, homegrown studios that made it easier for anyone to pursue a dream of musical stardom. In fact, it was that new technology, along with the slow ascent of social media and streaming sites like Youtube, that helped Soulja Boy go from a high schooler dancing in his bedroom to a household name.
When he uploaded the song “Crank That (Soulja Boy)” to Youtube, no one could have expected it would take off the way it did. It became so huge, so ubiquitous, so inescapable that it had toddlers, grandmothers, pastors, and politicians performing its dance. It was the first truly crossover viral success, setting the blueprint for both independent artists and labels to promote potential hits, as a whole generation of future stars from Bobby Shmurda to 2 Milly to Silento would come to use the formula of pairing an easy-to-learn dance with the title of their latest single as a pathway to notoriety, culminating most recently with BlocBoy JB, whose “Shoot” attracted the attention of Drake, making it a nationwide hit.
Soulja Boy himself became one of rap’s biggest stars, as well as one of its first troll antiheroes, renowned as much for the reactions to his runaway fame as for his own string of hits. Ice T notoriously remarked that Soulja “single-handedly killed hip-hop,” provoking a reactionary wave of battle rap revivalism that eventually led to the success of more straightforward rap icons like J. Cole, Kendrick Lamar, Wale, and of course, Drake, who may have been the biggest beneficiary of Soulja’s blueprint to date — in more ways than one.
Drake himself became the first truly sustainable viral rap star when his throwaway single “Brand New” leaked then exploded in popularity when he added it to his own Myspace page in response. The resulting record label bidding war played out almost exactly as it had for Soulja two years earlier. As Soulja hilariously pointed out during his interview, Drake even borrowed the flow from one of Soulja’s underground singles for his own third Thank Me Later single, “Miss Me.” The pair would eventually collaborate on 2013’s “We Made It.”
Other rappers would take cues from Soulja’s court jester social media persona, including Lil B, Lil Yachty, and Tay-K. Tekashi 69 made a career out of trolling rap rivals and grumpy old heads. You could argue that the entire Soundcloud rap movement, based around homemade beats (often produced on FL Studio, Soulja’s production program of choice), colorful personas, and pissing off the establishment, grew out of Soulja’s initial rise. Whenever Soulja goes viral for antics like selling his own (possibly scammy) video game console and knockoff Apple Watches, the discussion inevitably returns to his outsize influence on modern rap.
So, why hasn’t his musical reputation in recent years lived up to that sterling legacy? You could argue it’s because of how he blew up in the first place. While he enjoyed a run of Billboard hits extending from “Crank That,” he never outran the shadow of its outsized success. Anything he put out after simply paled in comparison, no matter how highly it charted or how well it sold. As he put out single after single and mixtape after mixtape with no apparent heed to quality control, he ran into the same issue many of today’s trap rappers have — too much supply, not enough demand.
Since he was never much of a rapper to begin with and never really felt the need to sharpen his skills as long as the records kept selling, he also found himself in competition with peers who made better use of the tools he pioneered than he could. While Soulja always took kind of a slapdash approach to promoting his music and curating his image, those who took that additional step stood out more. And, besides all that, the novelty simply wore off. As Uproxx’s own Andre Gee pointed out in regards to Tekashi 69, the more an entertainer’s fame relies on gimmickry and publicity stunts, the more easily their audience is lured away by someone more outrageous who pushes the line just a little further.
Soulja Boy’s legacy in hip-hop is solid. His influence is undeniable. But if he ever wants to truly make a Meek Mill-like comeback, he’ll have to actually surprise rap fans with something he’s never done before. Judging from his recent antics, it seems unlikely he’ll ever manage it, but if anyone can find a way to innovate, it’s the man who brought hip-hop into the digital era.