Features | Awards

The 2nd Annual Beanie Sigel Award for Mainstream Rap Shit that Only I (and Maybe Colin) Truly Understand

By Clayton Purdom | 14 December 2009

Soulja Boy Tell ‘Em :: “Turn My Swag On”
from iSouljaBoyTellem
(Interscope; 2008)

I have spent all year trying to write this essay, and I cannot fucking do it. Don’t even count this. I have tried, reader. Colin and I sat down to have one of our biweekly fireside chats in like February and attempted to write a polemic in defense of Soulja Boy. It was time, we thought, to wrest control of him from the hands of pedants and reactionaries; the kid was fine, and funny as shit, intentionally. We whispered that night of Soulja Boy’s economic success, too strong to deny and in rap that shit matters, but also his utter dominance of MySpace, YouTube, Xbox Live, and pretty much every other manner in which a famous person can be famous. (Recent Tweets on his diarrhetic feed include: “LOL,” “lol,” and “wuz hannannnn.”) We appreciated his baffling ability to clown Charles Hamilton by merely flashing his chain and a billion-dollar smile in an interview. We watched his YouTube thrashing of beloved arthouse videogame Braid, which we agreed on even though my reasons (its stolid self-seriousness, generally shit writing, and boring game design) and his (you’re a little dude with red hair) were pretty different.

The article, alack, went nowhere. The notes of a robust conversation languished on Google Documents for months afterward. It lacked purpose, I decided. But all the field research had to go somewhere; the desire to write a Soulja Boy article remained. So when I realized a few months later that I had inexplicably been bumping his second album’s third single “Turn My Swag On” consistently, that it had crept into this sort-of every-weekend playlist spot, I thought I finally had my angle: an appreciation of the track, an explication of its appeal, novelty though it might’ve been. That article also went nowhere, but this time it’s nonstart scoped, over time, into a grander realization. I could not write about Soulja Boy the first time because it felt insincere: Colin and I were being glib, championing the no-brow. We like rap too much to join the ranks of those tittering at its basest elements, which is what over-emphasizing his Braid review would’ve felt like. But I could not write the second time, when channeled through “Turn My Swag On,” for a different reason entirely, something I couldn’t place my finger on until I realized it was a thing too big to finger. I’ve revisited the track again several times since then, attempting to slip my affection for it into print. I cannot parse it. Even approaching it now, I feel humbled.

Because “Turn My Swag On” isn’t good, or fun—not just that. It’s the absolute fucking anthem of the year, better than any individual other song or any other album (consider it my number one): a seismic, monstrous cut, an every word memorized bounce, an earth-shattering shuddering megahit till I die. Every time I hear it I feel like I’m at the birth of a new galaxy. It transcends its origin to produce in the listener an explosive sense of joy. It is sublime and garish, the most fascinating artifact American pop culture has produced this year. If pop music is an escape, “Turn My Swag On” is a black hole, an escape without hope of return or of ever being again. It sucks the listener in such that, for three and a half minutes, the listener never existed at all. He or she is a conduit for this synthesizer line alone: mere ears, mere witness to this soaring, tone-deaf melody. In its incongruity, its joyousness, and its overwhelming feeling of artistic triumph, its nearest cultural parallel is “Hey Ya!” by OutKast. But even then, maybe not. It may lack precedent entirely.

So—you get why I’ve been bashful about this now, right? I am not alone in my love of the track—it’s all over pro sports, with a smattering of devotees within the press and the hip-hop community—but I’m also certainly going out on a limb here, assuming you can allow that I’m not trying to be hyperbolic or ribald. The track likewise bears the distinction of being almost impossible to dance to; see the end of the music video for Soulja Boy’s graceful solution thereof, sort of a left-to-right skip, but that’s kinda hard to do in a club. It’s a crowd-stopper, too strange to almost bear on initial listens. It feels melodically incorrect, almost morally so. It’s by Soulja Boy.

But embrace this incorrectness and you’ve taken a step toward some new type of alternate universe pop music that this song gloriously foresees. This is sorta like a cameraphone video uploaded to YouTube redefining cinema. Because Soulja Boy sings even worse than he raps, if you can imagine that. The beat itself is good, the best Soulja Boy’s ever touched for sure, but it would be just that and nothing more had he not chosen to sing on it. In so doing he created a communion with the beat, delivered to it the exact set of sounds that it needed, even if the words are nonsense the mood is precise, and his elation in this act is watershed. Soulja Boy created his first piece of art, and in it you feel the triumph of all acts of artistic creation: infectious, riotous, profound. In degrading the beat with his voice he has celebrated it as fully as any rapper has ever celebrated a beat. And he has done so by singing off-key jibberish. He merely put his things on, and then he said what’s up.

At this turn my notes—heretofore compiled in highlights—spin out of control entirely. I dissect the endless string of remixes: notes on how Lil’ Wayne’s nevertheless strong remix still ruins the track, proving its lightning-in-a-bottle effervescence; praise to Fabolous for being the only emcee to try to sing on it, too; maunderings about whether hip hop is dead, what this “song” might mean in said light; maunderings about the death of the album, how this single track trumped all other full-lengths, and on Pitchfork’s Beatles-fueled orgasms thereupon; an oblique mention of Barack Obama, inexplicably; discussion in context of the album’s other singles, most notably “Kiss Me Through the Phone” and “LOL Smiley Face,” both of which form an exploding middle-finger to the term “ringtone rap”; a mention of Elvis; and one pretty good sentence, which I’ll stitch here regardless: “It’s not about the beat or the lyrics; it’s about the combination of them as Soulja Boy triumphantly butchered it, creating not an in-joke or a trainwreck but a low art milestone, a sort of Texas Chainsaw Massacre of hip-pop.”

But anyway, let the record have shown: I wrote this essay. And one thousand fumbling words later, I still haven’t mentioned the fucking Segway.