Friday, November 21, 2008

I Hopped Out Of Bed...

I've been doing a lot of thinking about Soulja Boy lately. I'm not sure what else is to be be said that hasn't been said already in Weiss's incisive essay on the subject, but bear with me. Consider Soulja's video for his latest shelved single, "Turn My Swag On," sort of a way dumber version of T.I.'s "What You Know" (not that "What You Know" was ever much more than a great beat, a great hook, and some just-okay-enough-to-not-ruin-the-record verses). There are a few things about this video and song that really interest me.

First, note the back then/look at me now contrast set up at the 0:16 mark. This is a staple of rap music videos and rap lyrics in general; in fact, the whole treatment of this video is a pretty blatant ripoff of the video for Mike Jones's "Back Then". But there's a novel twist. When Soulja Boy's portrayed in his bummy broke days in drab black and white, there's some text on the screen. It reads, "MISSISSIPPI 2006." Flash forward, and we're in a way plusher house in "ATLANTA 2008." Now, rappers do videos about moving to nicer neighborhoods all the time, from the hood to the suburbs neighboring that hood. Other rappers have lied about their origins, pretended to be from here when they were really from there. Still others have moved far away from where they came from while continuing to rep their old hometown. But - and I could be wrong - we've never had a rapper shit on his home state like Soulja Boy does here. Dude shits on it so much he doesn't even say what town in Mississippi he came from. It's just "MISSISSIPPI," and that says all you need to know about how much his life sucked before the deal. As for Atlanta, it's not like he's repping the place, proud to be an Atlantan - Atlanta in the video is just another marker of his success, like the diamonds he pours out of his cereal box. It's a town where "rich niggas" like Soulja Boy go to live when they're wealthy enough to escape from whatever squalid corner of the South they came from. It might as well be Miami, might as well be New York, might as well be LA.

So what does this all mean? That in 2008, we're starting to move past the "rep yo hood" mentality of 99.99% of the last 20 years of rap. Even DJ Khaled, Mr. "We Global," is intensely rooted in Miami, however vague and purely notional Khaled's Miami has increasingly become. Soulja Boy has no home, no hood to rep. He's a citizen of the Internet, a product of cheap production software and social networking sites far more than he's a product of "his environment," and he's not ashamed at all to tell you how little he cared for his old digs. In a way it's refreshingly honest, better than hearing some dude tell you how he bleeds Marcy (or Queensbridge or the Nolia or Holygrove or Bankhead or Compton or Southside Queens) when he hasn't been there in years, but it's also a little disturbing. If we're headed towards a world where rap is no longer grounded in place, what will rap be about?


In a way you can't blame Soulja Boy. How would you act if you were catapulted from obscurity to international celebrity and obscene riches, all on the back of a 3:42 dance record it took you a few minutes to make? Muse on the absurdity of life? Read Camus' The Stranger? (One of the main characters, after all, is called 'The Arab.')


I got a question, why they hatin on me
I got a question, why they hatin on me
Ain't did nothin to 'em, but count this money
And put my team on, now my whole clique stuntin -
Soulja Boy

It's an excellent question. To which Soulja Boy's haters would reply, "you're destroying hip-hop," or something a little more nuanced but in the same vein. But here's the thing: in the post-lyrical rap world that Soulja Boy inhabits, there is no such thing as crossing over or faking the funk. There isn't really a funk to fake. If there were, it would probably have to do with lying about how much money you have or wearing a fake chain (or fake Bapes!). When Diddy railed against haters, he was talking to guys like Jeru*, but he was mainly just talking about jealous dudes at the club. Soulja's not talking to them. He's talking to you. He acknowledges all the people who say he's fucking up hip-hop and basically says, "so what? How does that hurt you financially? This lyrical bullshit - why is that worth preserving? If you say your real hip-hop's all about the people, and what the people want is me, doesn't that dead your argument?" Even Dem Franchize Boyz got more defensive than this. Yes, it's a post-lyrical world, and I'm sure we'll hear some great post-lyrical works before the next movement comes around, but please believe something important's being lost in the transition.

Finally, the slavery shit. In a rap world where the ever-ambiguous but extremely powerful organizing principle of Realness is rapidly being replaced by How Much You Are Worth and How Much You Sell** (it's worth noting that the foremost "political" rap record of the year isn't about police brutality, crazy incarceration rates, or what have you, but the recession***), what Soulja Boy said frankly makes a ton of sense from his extremely myopic perspective. For the few descendants of the slaves as fortunate as Soulja Boy, slavery worked out pretty well. Not only is he rich (shit, if you want to get scientific, not only would he not exist if not for the Middle Passage), he's gotten rich off of playing off a lot of the racist stereotypes that slavery engendered in the first place. Soulja Boy's comments, like Dipset's strange fascination with Al-Qaeda, are just the tip of an increasingly depoliticized rap iceberg.

* Of course, Big went at Jeru on "Kick In The Door" too. Besides, Jeru was wrong.
** This is a bit of a sweeping statement. But what I mean is this. In, say, 1995, if you asked a bunch of rappers what was the most important thing for a rapper to be, their answers by and large would be "real." Whatever that meant. See KRS's "it's not about a salary, it's all about reality," approvingly sampled by Dre (two artists you'd think don't have much in common) on 'Gangsta Gangsta.' Today, I think you'd get very different answers. KRS's line has been flipped. When Khaled and his crew claim that "we the best," what more are they even saying than "we sell a lot of records and ringtones"? When Soulja Boy told MTV that in his opinion he should've been ranked #1 on their stupid "Hottest MC's In The Game" list - MC's, not urban radio artists, MC's - how'd he justify that claim? "
He said he is the best-selling online, highest-ranking on the Web and the most publicized rapper worldwide right now."**** Even back in '04, we were getting a ton of this shit with 50's "fuck who's the nicer rapper, I sell millions more records than you" approach to dissing everyone in New York. Compare that to Jay's attacks on Nas just three years earlier. He didn't say, Nastradamus didn't sell, check out the Soundscans - he said, that garbage did sell, but it was garbage. The standards by which rappers define themselves have changed.
*** Although Jeezy's politics are so muddled that it's not clear he even distinguishes between this stuff, or realizes that Bush didn't just decide one day to have a recession to screw over black people. (Not to say that Bush has been a great steward of our economy or anything.)
**** Also note, in this regard, Soulja's legitimately cringe-worthy claim on this very song that "when I was 9 years old, I put this in my head/ear [I can't tell which] that I'm a die for this gold."


Anonymous said...

My favoruite moments of this post include:

1) you starting a post titled "i hopped out of bed.." with "I've been doing a lot of thinking about Soulja Boy lately" The Ghost of Cam'ron Christmas Past demands a no homo there.

2) you making a Soulja Boy connection to Albert Camu : What's more offensive - being referred to as A-rab or The Arab?

3) actually being hipped to this video. that atlanta 2008 move you pointed out is some seriously LOLarious shit

I feel strange that Soulja Boy gets brought up in every conversation about the current and future state of hip hop. Granted, he's had a huge hit, and he's leveraged the power of the internet more openly, and arguably effectively than many others. But really? Am I supposed to believe that he is leading a generation of rappers to the new, evil dawn of 'post lyricism' ? Like, are there aspiring rappers looking upto Soulja Boy as an inspiration for their art? Isn't he just another one hit wonder footnote ?

"If we're headed towards a world where rap is no longer grounded in place, what will rap be about?" - Thats a big one isnt it? This is another factor that I never really seriously considered before reading blogs dissecting rap. I personally dont have a preconceived notion of what 'true' or 'real' hip hip or rap is, but I can't deny how regional influence brings a really unique and fascinating dynamic to rap, both musically and conceptually.

Postmodern rap where every influence just blurs into one big melting pot, not the baddest look really. although yes, something is going to get lost in the process.

tray said...

Yeah, no homo. Although the song of course starts "I hopped out of bed..."

Um, is Soulja Boy the leader? No. Wayne is the leader of the movement, if you need a leader; Soulja Boy's an extreme symptom (although if you just want to go single for single, Crank That was a bigger hit than Lollipop, and you can ask yourself who was following the trend and who was making the trend on that comparison). But he's a really important symptom and a really useful one for criticism, because there isn't a lot of artifice with this guy. He's saying stuff that others are feeling but are still too scared to say, and doing stuff that others would like to do but are still too scared to do. Like flouting the convention that you've gotta be faithful to wherever you came from. We're going to start to see a lot of rappers who aren't all about being from anywhere in particular, and Soulja's opening that door. I'm sure there are plenty of rappers who are so apolitical, or at least not political in the traditional hip-hop sense, that, if they don't quite share his sentiments on slavery, they're at least looking at Obama and thinking, "yeah, a black President would be nice, but do I want my taxes to go up?" You already saw that with 50's weird support of Bush, though of course all of a sudden he says he saw the light and became an Obama guy. Maybe sincerely, maybe that's just the peer pressure you face as a big name rapper. Then there's other stuff. Being so post-lyrical that your hooks go "y-y-y-y-yahhh!!!" I mean, you could say we were already there with NORE on Superthug, but at least "what" is a word.... eventually you could see a type of "rap" that's all about melodiously shouted meaningless monosyllables. Dude's out in front on a lot of stuff. For better or worse.

Jesus Shuttlesworth said...

in terms of rappers who aren't really "true" to where they came from, i think we're starting to see that already in some of these "hipster" groups. the knux, even though they're from NO, really don't mention the experience, and when they do (like on 'bang bang') you don't feel like your getting a unique perspective. or the cool kids, who are from chicago, but rarely make reference to it. at least they make songs i like, though.

to get back quickly to the slavery comment, has anyone ever read George Schuyler's Black No More? it was published in 1931, and the dedication reads:

This book is dedicated to all Caucasians in the great republic who can trace their ancestry back ten generations and confidently assert that there are no Black leaves, twigs, limbs or branches on their family trees.

i doubt soulja boy has the awareness/wit to communicate such sarcasm in the moment, but what he said, while stupid and poorly worded, isn't as bad as you made it sound.

tray said...

Yep, another reason to hate on the Knux. They've got this rich experience, seem to have the lyrical chops to talk about it, and they only want to talk about it in interviews with Weiss. That said, the Knux are polite enough to not make some video where they basically go, "back then, we were in N.O., and then we got out of that hellhole."

I guess I don't get your Schuyler point.

Jesus Shuttlesworth said...

yea, i realized after i wrote the dedication that i didn't really have much to say besides pointing out an interesting connection i saw. not to say soulja boy is the "greatest performance artist of our generation," of course.

Passion of the Weiss said...

I actually interviewed Soulja Boy today--not really in the mood to talk point by point about this post (some points I agree with, some I don't).

But I do find the kid a fascinating figure and think evaluating him with the same criteria that people assess a Nas or Wu-Tang album is ridiculously dumb. Truth be told, in person, he's a smart, technologically savvy kid who might not be a great rapper or anything close to it. But no matter how much people want to accuse him of some imagined misdeeds to hip-hop, there is something to be said about the he built a massive fan base from the ground up (even before "Crank That."

I also like this song.

tray said...

"But I do find the kid a fascinating figure and think evaluating him with the same criteria that people assess a Nas or Wu-Tang album is ridiculously dumb."

Of course. That said, you beg the question: what criteria do we evaluate him with? Like what would a bad version of Soulja Boy look like? One whose best song was Booty Meat, instead of Crank That? How do we know which Soulja Boy songs are bad and which ones are good? I guess you sort of use the same kind of criteria you'd use to review, I don't know, Alice Deejay. How catchy is it... how animated...

"I also like this song."

Oh, me too. I'm constantly singing it in elevators and other secluded places where I won't be overheard. It's a great little encapsulation of what it's like to suddenly become a teenage superstar. I'd definitely take it over Lupe's "Superstar." But I do have concerns about what this all signals for the future of hip-hop. Basically, like noz, I'm not too crazy about any of the unabashedly lyrical dudes left, but not too excited about the post-lyrical direction we're headed in, my Jeezy fandom aside. In other words, I'm down on everything, as opposed to you, who's only down on some stuff. Or noz, who's only down on other stuff.

Passion of the Weiss said...

I think you don't even evaluate him in terms of rap music. I evaluate Soulja Boy against Britney Spears, Usher, Justin Timberlake, [insert massive selling pop artist] here.

He's obviously not an album artist and his music is unabashedly pop. If the kid can drop a few good singles an album, he's done his job. The thing that separates Soulja Boy from the rest (for me) is that he has a good sense of humor. A friend of mine once opined that if you don't think R. Kelly is trying to be funny, you're a racist. If you watch the "Got My Swag" on video and don't think he's joking, I could argue the same point.

Granted, Soulja Boy is a little less overt than Kells (and re: the slavemasters comment, sometimes woefully unfunny), but he's well aware that he's trying to be comedic. Kid's biggest hero is Dave Chappelle.

Jesus Shuttlesworth said...

"I think you don't even evaluate him in terms of rap music. I evaluate Soulja Boy against Britney Spears, Usher, Justin Timberlake, [insert massive selling pop artist] here."

so does that mean that there won't be as much influence on rap songs, where they just become yelled hooks over and over (which i feel like exists/existed already)?

tray said...

First of all, your friend's wrong - you don't have to be racist, you could just think Kells is an uncommonly dumb/pervy guy. About Kells, I think it depends on the specific song you're talking about. Sex Planet, Zoo, all that - obviously jokes. When he did that reggae shit on Double Up and starts singing "don't like false accusations, can't stand defamation, it's all about healing the nations," I don't think he gets how funny it is that his plan for healing the nations is apparently us not making anymore "false" accusations about his deviant behavior. Same with:

Hey, it's the Remix Killer
And I think she want me to feel her

Like I don't think he talks about sex in this 4th grade "more bottles = more models" way because he knows how hilarious it is. But that's just me. Soulja's trying to be funny too.... but in what way, you surely wouldn't contend he's making fun of other cash-mad rappers when he's got the money flying at him from the wind machine? Like this isn't The Roots with "What They Do." He's hamming up a lot, yes, but under the hamming up, I think you're getting a fairly straight depiction of what he's about.

About how you evaluate him, first of all putting him up next to JT and such is unfair to Soulja. We kinda demand more of our pop artists, musically; if JT started singing over beats that sounded as simple as Soulja's do, everyone would call that a bad record. In rap, you're allowed to do that stuff. I think if anything, the cornball house record, and how you evaluate that (yes, there are good cornball house records and bad ones) provides a better framework. But even then, the truth is he still sees himself as a rapper. Pop artists don't do mixtape work with Gucci Mane (see for a great post on said work). They usually sing, and that's one thing Soulja's yet to do, unlike 90% of the commercial rappers. They talk about their record sales in interviews, but they don't make songs about it. That's a uniquely rap thing. I think this stuff, like the snap records, is all a little more like our contemporary equivalent of bounce music - which still falls under the hip-hop umbrella - than it is straight pop.

Anonymous said...

I agree that soulja boy is reasonably self-aware individual with an obvious interest in comedy - All the blogs that blew up the soulja boy slavemaster comment were just using the story to fit their agenda to prove that this dude that they hate is a complete idiot. It's a stupid comment for sure, but there's obviously a certain degree of intended goofiness in the statement. I hate how critics are pretending like soulja boy's this clueless, retarded kid who just made this disrespectful statement with a totally straight face. Like, I don't get how uneducated or young you are, but I'm pretty sure as a black person you have a basic idea of what it means to shoutout and thank slaveowners.

funny weiss should mention that chapelle is soulja boy's hero, because if someone like chapelle had made that slaveowner statement, most people would probably interpret and dismiss it as either just plain funny ridiculousness, or him making sarcastic/ironic social commentary. those statements sound very much like something on one of chapelle's 'controversial' race-related sketches

tray said...

Not knowing Soulja Boy, and not seeing any particular reason to interpret his remarks with a great deal of charity, I think Soulja Boy's a smart kid - who made the comment in all seriousness, because, as he sees it (correctly, I think), he's better off for there having been slavery. That's not stupid, it's just grossly self-centered. Let me give you a Jewisn analogy. In the services for Passover, the holiday on which we celebrate the escape of the slaves from Egypt, there's a very, very old tradition we call the Four Sons, where these four imaginary sons ask questions about the meaning of Passover and get answers. (The questions and answers are written in the prayer book; you're just supposed to read them.) There's a wise son, a "simple" son, and one who isn't old enough to talk. And then there's the "wicked son." The question he asks is, "what does this service mean to you?" The implication being, this doesn't mean anything to me. And what you're supposed to tell him that what it means is that our people were freed back in the day, and if not for that we'd presumably still be slaves, or at least our ancestors would've been. And then, you're supposed to tell him that if he had been a slave in Egypt, he wouldn't have deserved to be freed. That always seemed a little extreme to me, and in my more rebellious teenage moments I often sympathized with the wicked son (before I became a conservative). His question isn't a dumb one by any means. In many ways it's the smartest of the four questions the four sons ask. It's a question more and more Jews are asking, and one day when the Holocaust is a distant memory it's a question that will be asked about that too. It's just selfish. I take Soulja Boy's remarks in just the same spirit.

Anonymous said...

Fair enough. Its subjective, but I think dude's clowning atleast a bit when he says makes those statements. But regardless of whether he's completely serious or facetious, I agree that 'self centred' is probably a more accurate word than stupid.

Its interesting you actually examined the truth behind his statement, coz I was just talking to a friend about how everyone who covered that newsstory completely ignored the reality benhind it. and i understand that, coz its a minefield issue - a totally complex and uncomfortable one to confront without stepping on someone toes

Much like the Jewish analogy you discussed, as an Indian, we have similarly heated discussions about the Brits and the progress and blessings that colonizers inadvertently brought into India. Sure they colonized the country for a couple of centuries - they pillaged our resources and committed all sorts of miscellaneous colonial fuckery, but their reign also established their systems of education and infrastructure in our country. Plus, by being assholes, they also united the warring factions of our nation against them. The discussion around this similarly complex and uncomfortable. On one hand, you dont want to forget a history of atrocities committed against your ancestors. There's also a vengeful aspect of holding this grudge against your colonizers - you dont wanna let shit slide and even after all these years, you wanna hold them accountable. (this vengeance is why I boycott all hugh grant movies. charming brit accent, my ass) Maybe forgive but definitely not forget.

but on ther hand, you start to consider the idea that you as a distant descendant have benefitted from the suffering of your forefathers.

tray said...

Yeah, I mean, I think India's a way more ambiguous case. Isn't there tons of research that says that Asian/African countries at one point held by Britain are generally way more developed than most of the other postcolonial nations? Hard to make a similar case for American blacks and slavery. I mean, Soulja would say that Africa's no great shakes either, but like Toure pointed out, that's in part because of what the export of all those people did to Africa.