On The Record: Behold, A True Master At Work
Imagine if everything you knew about Soulja Boy Tell’em was wrong. That he was not a hyperactive, cash-craving demon hell-bent on destroying hip-hop. That his songs were not shameless stabs at ringtone royalties, his lyrics not indecipherable and lightweight, his image not clownish and gaudy. Imagine if he were secretly more brilliant than you could ever imagine, that his entire career has been one deceptively subtle bit of social commentary, and that you are just not smart enough to be in on the joke.
I ask you to consider all this, because I am fairly sure that it is all true. Soulja Boy gets a bad rap (pardon the pun). He is not a pariah. He is not, as some of his hip-hop forefathers have claimed, “garbage.” He is simply the greatest performance artist of our generation, a genius whose body of work — be it his songs, his persona, his merchandise or his endless parade of YouTube musings — is solely committed to satirizing hip-hop culture.
That most people don’t get the joke is almost more of a comment on his success. If you look at some of the best moments of performance art in recent history — say, Andy Kaufman’s turns as abusive lounge lizard Tony Clifton or Gregg Turkington’s groan-inducing Neil Hamburger routines or even Norm MacDonald’s purposeful tank job at the Comedy Central Roast of Bob Saget — they are almost always misunderstood by those not in on the joke.
These are well-crafted pieces of art, designed to tweak, to provoke and, often, even to enrage anyone not smart enough to catch on (like Stamos in the MacDonald bit or, say, Ice-T with Soulja Boy). The truly great artists create works that somehow manage to transcend sheer annoyance and enter the realm of astute commentary — some bit or character or act that pokes holes in social contrivances and points out the inherent ridiculousness of a given situation or notion. Soulja Boy does this basically every time he opens his mouth.
There are about a million examples of this. The first is “Crank That,” an amazingly misogynistic song about a sexual act that’s probably banned in several countries, yet was marketed to tweens and ended up on more than a few critics’ “Best Songs of 2007″ lists (mine included ). Or the follow-up single, “Yahhh!,” which ditched the concept of a hook altogether in favor of Soulja shouting “Yarhghhrhhhrhhfhrwhhwhwh!” like the Great Cornholio. There is the fact that he named his major-label debut SouljaBoyTellem.com, or that he lent his name to a brand of sneakers that come in colors like “Grape,” “Lemon Lime” and “Smores,” or that he walked around with puff paint on his sunglasses and thousands of dollars of diamonds around his neck.
To the unaware, all of that made Soulja Boy a walking stereotype, a one-stop shop for all that is wrong with hip-hop culture: the sexism, the braggadocio, the idea of style over substance. He caused people to cringe and to lash out, because what they saw made them angry. But really, that’s only because they weren’t aware that this was all an act, that the entire concept of Soulja Boy “the character” was a rather elaborate bit of performance art designed to point out the inherent ridiculousness of all of those stereotypes. Or, at least, I hoped so.
But recently, two things have sewn it up for me, the first being a series of YouTube clips Soulja began posting in August called — cringingly enough — “Rich N—a Sh–.” In the first video, the character of Soulja is taken to new heights: waking up on a Gucci-fied bed, donning a “Soulja Boy” robe, blowing his nose with a $100 bill and riding around his barely filled house on a Segway because “only poor-ass n—as walk.” In subsequent chapters, he approaches two homeless men and makes them beg for money, shows off a room in another of his houses in which only those who have $50,000 in the bank are allowed to enter, plays a few minutes of “Grand Theft Auto” on a massive TV, and rides a souped-up go-kart around a gated community.
It’s perhaps the greatest example of performance art I’ve ever seen, if only because it takes just about every other stereotype possible and satirizes it in one fell swoop. The character has become huge, preening and grotesque, like a villain in professional wrestling or a bad bit of vaudeville. There is no way he could be taken seriously, only he is, which sort of proves just how brilliant Soulja really is (because, really, no one could be that dumb). But, things had only begun.
Late last month, Soulja did an interview with respected cultural critic Touré, in which he submitted to a form of the Proust Questionnaire. When asked, “What historical figure do you most hate?,” Soulja was apparently stumped, to which Touré prompted: “Others have said Hitler, bin Laden, the slave masters … ”
“Oh, wait! Hold up! Shout-out to the slave masters!” Soulja replied “Without them, we’d still be in Africa. … We wouldn’t be here to get this ice and tattoos.”
Now, keep in mind that Soulja — or, as I’m convinced, his alter ego, 18-year-old DeAndre Way — claimed that his comment was blown out of proportion because he was being “sarcastic,” but I’d like to think this was the final master stroke: a hip-hop artist making a comment so mind-blowingly ignorant and insensitive that even the most fervent supporters of the genre would be forced to throw their hands up in the air and say “You know what? There really is no hope.”
Of course, you are probably thinking there is no way Soulja Boy is that smart, that he is just a money-hungry kid with no respect and no talent and a blight to the entire genre. And you might be completely right. But that probably also means that you’re not in on the joke, and therefore, you’re also missing the point. Soulja Boy isn’t real; he’s a character created out of the public’s misconceptions, a brilliant bit of social commentary sprung from one of the most brilliant performance artists of our time. Or, at least, I hope he is. All I really know is that, apparently, he has a new album coming out next month, and personally, I can’t wait to see what he does next. Actually, I’m slightly terrified. And that’s great art.
Questions? Comments? BTTS@MTVStaff.com.