Soulja Boy’s quick ascent to pop stardom has been met with an especially bitter crosscurrent of animosity, mostly in the form of trash talk spilled down by his elders: Ice-T accused him of “killing hip-hop,” and Method Man, while downplaying the hysteria of that claim, agreed that he was “garbage.” This resentment stems from a supposed dumbing-down of the genre’s level of discourse, exchanging complex narratives for snappy soundbites, a ridiculous claim for anyone who’s analyzed a standard album’s worth of lyrics. His detractors, aside from showing their increasing irrelevance, have been the ones hurting hip-hop, reductively forcing the genre into an anachronistic, often stagnant mold.
What’s worth keeping in mind is that Soulja Boy, despite the threatening sight of a body smeared with tattoos, makes no inflated claims at hardness or street credibility. He was 17 when he started and, having just reached his 20s, has avoided the dreary invocation of pimps and guns and dealing. His songs, while still often crude and rough, are just as often sharp, joyful, and witty, exhibiting a virtuosity in melding pop sensibility with effervescent, ringtone-ready rap. The DeAndre Way doesn’t exactly qualify as substantial growth, but it’s another solid effort from an innovative MC who’s been unfairly chastised by so many.
Soulja Boy’s songs remain bizarre models of economy and naïveté, wielding repetitive hooks that pivot on mesmerizingly circular beats. Songs like “First Day of School,” about his wardrobe, and “30 Thousand Million,” about his budget, are deceptively venal and hollow, containing wacky gems like “Word around town’s that my dick tastes like ribs.” It’s an aesthetic that merges the flashy decadence of late-‘90s Bad Boy with the boozy lethargy of Southern rap, spinning songs that wallow in their own gaudy indolence.
In this sense, The DeAndre Way feels like a spiritual partner to Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, but also its opposite, decidedly matter-of-fact about hollowness where Kanye’s is grandly and brilliantly neurotic. That album is packed with guest appearances, most notably the 11-singer pileup on “All of the Lights,” which has the audacity to blend some of the world’s most famous voices down into mush. This one has only four guest stars, most of them names smaller than Soulja Boy’s. The only exception is 50 Cent, himself a friend to the disenfranchised and the outsider, who shows up on “Mean Mug.” The two trade verses over a glittering backdrop, the jester and the thug, each offering their own style of response toward some imagined enemy. It’s another reminder of the infinite possibilities for self-aggrandizement, and just how much room hip-hop has for a multitude of voices.