When the 2007 success of “Crank Dat (Soulja Boy)” turned its creator from cult Youtube darling into international chart topper, some painted Soulja Boy as a visionary digital maven. In truth, it was probably more a case of him being in the right place at the right time. He was just a kid using the Internet in the way many kids would come to use the Internet, as a tool for unchecked creativity and shameless self-promotion with no specific direction or intent. With “Crank Dat” he stumbled upon the perfect formula to propel him from Internet clout into real world stardom. It wasn’t his only hit — comparatively minor chart producers like the sickly sweet “Kiss Me Through The Phone” and the infectious “Turn My Swag On” as well as roughly a half dozen street and web favorites followed – but it was by far his biggest. Big enough that he’d never need another hit.
This works out nicely because Soulja will almost definitely never come anywhere close to that success. Today he exists in a sort of rap-star limbo. He’s long been the target of misdirected and malicious destroying hip-hop scapegoating and much was made of how his last album, The DeAndre Way, sold just 13,000 copies in its first week of release. This statistic means very little to anybody but the most grasping haters. He’s a single-oriented artist in an era where only megastars and AOR artists ever sell albums, especially considering his target demographic of web-savvy adolescents. (If Soulja Boy wasn’t Soulja Boy it’d be hard to imagine him buying a Soulja Boy album. Even if he was a devout Soulja Boy fan.) At the same time he still has enough eyes (2.9 million Twitter followers) to justify creating; his buzz certainly isn’t expanding, it’s a permanent low-level hum, but he feeds it gleefully.
His fourth mixtape this year, Bernard Arnault Limited Edition (Limited Edition only in the sense that it says “Limited Edition” in the title. It’s as readily available as every other freebee tape on DatPiff.com) is an exercise in looseness of identity. Soulja revealed himself to be something of a chameleon (or, as we used to call it, a biter) in the wake of “Crank Dat” (which itself owed more than a little to the Atlanta snap rap of D4L and Dem Franchise Boys). When he was a Gucci fan, he was aping Gucci Mane. When he was inspired by frequent collaborator Lil B, his output expanded to include new age spoken word poetry and séance chants of “Swag.” (To his credit he tends to be an early adopter with reliable judgment and a willingness to cross-promote.) So a Soulja Boy mixtape functions less as a statement of character than a demonstration of that taste. Sometimes he seems to be improving, sometimes his skills seem more slapdash and half-assed than ever, mostly he’s just happily jumping around his iTunes playlist and playing dress-up.
That good taste extends to his production selection, which has gotten increasingly experimental in recent years (another nod to Lil B, naturally). Newcomer producer CrackBeatz delivers the clear standout with “Louis Vitton,” built around fluttering jazz piano chops and decimated gurgle vocals while Waka/Rick Ross architect Lex Luger steps slightly left of his own formula with the crawling “Texas.” But truly the best moments on Bernard Arnault lie where the best moments in any Soulja Boy tape tend to — either in the small cracks where his own personality supersedes his influences or, more frequently, where his unbridled happiness in wearing those influences rubs off on the listener.
On “20Min Freestyle” he does exactly what the title says for as long as it suggests while only occasionally deteriorating into complete gibberish and not ever turning boring. He could’ve stopped rapping fifteen minutes prior, but he didn’t. Just like he could’ve cashed his “Crank Dat” check, moved to an island and never rapped again. But still he continues to record with nothing to prove and very little to gain. To listen to Bernard Arnault (or Smooky or Juice or 1Up) is to witness a 20-year-old millionaire just loving the act of zero stakes creation. It doesn’t matter what the listener makes of the project, Soulja loved making it. It’s a shame artists of greater vision and natural talent aren’t able to walk into a studio (or open up ProTools) and feel as much joy and as little pressure he does. [Stream Bernard Assault Limited Edition here.]