The viral hit is nothing new to mainstream pop. In recent years we’ve seen songs like “Watch Me (Whip/Nae Nae)”, “Nasty Freestyle”, and “Hot N****” dominate charts and memes alike, as their infectious choruses and associated dances explode. Going back further, we see one-hit wonders like “Macarena” and “Sandstorm” strike gold once and coast with their success for the rest of the artists’ careers. But for those my age, who were just beginning their teenage years in the mid-to-late 2000s, there is one song in this vain that trumps all: Soulja Boy Tell ‘Em’s “Crank That”.
Yes, “Crank That”, which spent an incredible seven (non-consecutive) weeks at no. 1 in the Billboard Hot 100, is the most memorable of these viral hits. The dance, which was incredibly simple, was easy to learn and even easier to break out at any moment. The song’s video could almost serve as an accompanying instructional pamphlet, and while watching it’s easy to discern why this song was so popular: Soulja Boy just seems like he’s having so much damn fun. Keep in mind, he was only 16(!) when “Crank That” was recorded — that youthful exuberance is palpable in the video and in Soulja Boy’s voice.
“Crank That” was a critical and commercial success. Aside from the song’s prosperity in the charts, it also sold remarkably well as a single, being the first song to sell over three million total MP3 downloads in music history. Critics generally loved it, too; Rolling Stone listed it as the #21 best song of 2007, and it was nominated for the Grammy Award for Best Rap Song. But the best example of its ubiquity was in classrooms and playgrounds — there wasn’t a kid at my school who didn’t know the dance.
I think that a lot of the song’s success with children is a result of the fact that most of us (at least in my small Iowan town) weren’t exposed to much hip-hop at all. The classic repetitive melodic loop (is it a marimba?) that the song is based upon is straight-up dirty south production, while there isn’t a single vocal melody to be found on the entire song — something that was unheard of for a kid like me who grew up on country music and Grammy nominee CDs. It seems silly to think about this now, but “Crank That” and other relatively tame rap hits (most notably Eminem’s “Lose Yourself”) were almost signs of rebellion; I thought that there was no way that Mom would let me listen to them.
You might be surprised to know that Soulja Boy has carved out a fairly prolific rap career for himself, dropping more than a dozen mixtapes over the last decade. Most of it is really bad. But Soulja Boy always maintained that pop sensibility that was so evident on “Crank That”; songs like “Gucci Bandana”, “Kiss Me Thru The Phone”, and “Mean Mug” are prime examples of that. Soulja Boy’s best song is “Zan With That Lean”, a fully melodic trip of Atlanta AutoTune crooning. You can practically taste the codeine. But the pinnacle of Soulja Boy’s career will always be “Crank That” — directing people to either Superman or Super-soak “that ho” will never grow old.
shoutout to Mitch 😩