Love it or loathe it, "Crank That (Soulja Boy)" is the biggest pop novelty of 2007, and only partly because it was the country's No. 1 single for seven weeks this fall. With Soulja Boy's rudimentary, shouted (mostly indecipherable) rhymes, spare steel-drum hook, and snapping fingers, the song is equal parts irresistibly catchy and endlessly annoying. If Charles Dickens were a music critic, he might have written that "it was the best of tunes, it was the worst of tunes." The track recently received a Grammy nomination for best rap song.
Realistically, it's the easy-to-do, better-in-a-group choreography that has made "Crank That" the biggest dance sensation since the Macarena. On YouTube, people from all walks of life, ages and races have uploaded homemade video clips with their version of the dance - more than 40,000. Dozens show animated characters "cranking that" in sync, from SpongeBob SquarePants, Dora the Explorer, Barney and the Simpsons to Bambi, Winnie the Pooh and the Lion King.
A "Crank That" instructional video, with Soulja Boy breaking down each move, has tallied about 21 million views since being added to YouTube. The single's music video has passed 25 million views. Kind of amazing for a 17-year-old's debut single, one that started as a download from his MySpace page.
"Ah, man, it was just something I was doing in the bedroom of my house and having fun," says Soulja Boy. "I'm surprised that it got this big!"
As to the polarized opinions, Soulja Boy says: "I wasn't making it for everybody to like me. Now a lot of people hate that song and a lot of people love it, so it's just crazy. They like the beat, they like the song, and they like the dance."
Whether you're laughing at the dance or laughing with it, it's fun, it's infectious, and the fact that anyone can do it (which doesn't mean that anyone
do it) is clearly part of its charm.
Soulja Boy shot the instructional video in Atlanta, in the empty swimming pool featured in the film
Stomp the Yard
. "Everybody was trying to learn the dance, but nobody really knew how to do it right," he says by phone during rehearsals in Columbus, Ga.
The rap phenomenon was born in that major metropolitan music center Batesville, Miss., population about 10,000. Soulja Boy, born DeAndre Way in Chicago, was in eighth grade when he moved to Batesville to live with his father, who made a defining purchase.
"When I first got my computer, I was 12," says Soulja Boy. "It got me where I am."
He started making beats and songs and then turned to the Internet. He began uploading tracks to SoundClick.com, where artists comment on one another's songs. Getting good feedback, Soulja Boy borrowed a cousin's video camera and uploaded videos of himself and friends doing popular teen dances.
Soulja Boy opened a YouTube account in January 2006 and has since posted more than 100 videos. Titling his debut album
is a nod to his Internet roots, as is his online store, Souljaboystore.com. His album
Unsigned and Still Major
was released in early March.
That same month, he recorded "Crank That (Soulja Boy)" on his computer. No instruments were involved. He uploaded the video to YouTube in April, and after that, it was off to the races as a viral Internet sensation. Atlanta producer-impresario Michael Grooms, a.k.a. Mr. Collipark (Ying Yang Twins, Young Jeezy), who first heard about Soulja Boy from kids in a park where his sons played, signed him to a major-label deal with Interscope.
"Crank That" hit the radio in late May and reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in September. It has also been a No. 1 ring tone and No. 1 on iTunes. Some school dances and skating rinks have banned the song for sexual slang and innuendo, though teens seem to be more interested in the dance and the beat than in the lyrics.
"Crank That" is also on the hit list of "hip-hop is dead" traditionalists, who dismiss "Crank That" as "ring-tone rap." Ironically, Soulja Boy's music marks a revival of rap's bust-a-move style and a move away from the gloom and doom of gangsta rap.
Now a high school senior touring with a tutor, Soulja Boy doesn't seemed fazed by the critics. It's party music of his peers and pals, Soulja Boy insists. As he puts it in the album's closing song, "Don't Get Mad ('cause the Kids Like Me)."
"It's rhythm, man, it's action-packed, it's crunk. When the beat comes on, it just makes you want to move. If not, [you're] dead."