2019 commenced in earnest on Wednesday, January 16. That morning, Soulja Boy appeared as a guest on Power 105.1’s The Breakfast Club. The former megastar was in studio ostensibly to promote a cache of dubious new business ventures: SouljaGame Console, SouljaWatch, and Soulja Boy: The Movie. But the interview quickly devolved into a rehashing of some of the more infamous and head-scratching moments from the rapper/internet entrepreneur’s decade-and-a-half long career. (It should be noted that Soulja Boy is somehow only 29.) There was talk of his recent foray into reality television, an extended rant on his disappointment with Kanye West, and a harrowing retelling of the 2008 home invasion in which a masked intruder was shot dead in his Atlanta mansion. The interview’s most instructive passage, however, came at the very end when, in a flash of campy brilliance, Soulja Boy showed us all where the year was headed.
As things wound down, conversation turned to a point of contention. Days prior, Soulja Boy spurned the growing cohort of what he called “rap cap niggas” in an expletive-filled Instagram Live tirade. He declared that he was returning to hip-hop with a vengeance after having “the biggest comeback of 2018,” a claim the trio of Breakfast Club hosts didn’t quite buy. They proposed that a person more deserving of that designation was someone like Meek Mill, who was jailed and sentenced to 2-4 years in prison in November of 2017 following an apparent probation violation connected to a charge from 2007. The public seized upon the Philadelphia rapper’s case as the unfortunate byproduct of an unjust, predatory parole system, and after personal appeals from the likes of the Philadelphia District Attorney as well as New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, Meek was released in April of 2018. That fall, his fourth album Championships topped the charts and produced the double-platinum single “Going Bad.” Plus, the hosts argued, Meek survived beef with Drake.
This last point crossed an apparent line for Soulja Boy. In fact, it set him off. ”DRAAAAAAKE? DRAKE?” he yelped with a level of curdling derision never before heard on morning radio. “The nigga that got bodied by Pusha-T? The nigga that hiding his kid from the world, but his world wouldn’t hide from the kid? Aubrey Graham in the wheelcha—... DRAAAAAKE?” His calculated display of shocked indignation was so convincing that, for a moment, I, too, considered the possibility that one of the most successful commercial artists in history was actually just a 30-something, Canadian chump.
It’s a moment that has since been encased in the eternal amber of meme-hood, and earned Soulja Boy a sudden, albeit brief, return to the spotlight. It was also a fitting point of departure for a year in which camp was king and absurdity reigned supreme. In 2019, if you wanted a shot at making it big, you had to be big—plus brash, clever, and frankly, a little ludicrous. The year’s early visitation from the Ghost of Gucci Headband Past proved not to be, as it first seemed, just a blip of notoriety for a fading star, but also a harbinger of the loud, weird, theatrical year ahead in popular music.
Just as the Soulja Boy meme was screaming its way up and down Twitter timelines, a strange and intoxicating phenomenon was beginning to bubble on TikTok. All across the country, teens were drinking the Yee-Yee Juice and transforming instantly (and perfectly on beat) into their best Western selves, all thanks to Lil Nas X. Through a determined campaign of cross-platform self-promotion, armed with the power of an undeniable, cross-genre hit, the then-19-year-old popular-memer-turned-musician manufactured a viral hit. In October, “Old Town Road”—a song the aspiring rapper recorded while crashing on his sister’s floor with the help of a beat purchased online for $30 from a Dutch teen—became the fastest single in RIAA history to receive Diamond certification. In less than a year, the song sold more than 10 million units, accounting for nine of the 11 highest weekly U.S. streaming totals in the history of digital music, while spending an unprecedented 19 weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100.
The success of “Old Town Road” was propelled in large part by the campy irreverence of the digitally native brain that it spawned from, a.k.a. the Twitter artist formerly known as @Nasmaraj. As Lil Nas X ascended to stardom, he utilized that knowledge base with an unfailing ability to troll anyone and anything—all while making himself the most frequent target of his own jokes. His tweets, his interviews, his outfits, and even his songs winked and smirked at the improbability and performativity of his own pop stardom. He was simultaneously starring in the movie while also sitting with us, in the audience, cracking jokes.
Another newfound star who leaned into the bit was Texas native Megan Thee Stallion. In January, the talented MC released the single “Big Ole Freak” from her Tina Snow EP. The song was a perfect distillation of her confident, sensual, and sexy brand of southern rap. Meg’s online presence was just as compelling. Nary a day went by when her followers weren’t treated to a new video of her dispatching a bevy of bars, twerking, or, as was often the case, doing both at the same time. When the video for “Big Ole Freak” was released in late February, the 24-year-old’s “Hot Girl Summer” had somehow already begun. Naturally, it lasted through the actual summer, too—a three-word call to arms that effectively communicated her artistic ethos of unabashed confidence and self-actualization.
The “Hot Girl Summer” movement achieved the type of cultural ubiquity that prompts explainer articles and parody videos involving Jimmy Fallon. It climbed to such heights, because like Lil Nas X, Megan Thee Stallion adopted an outlandish, one-of-a-kind style of showmanship. She leaned into her Trina-meets-Pimp C-meets-Jessica Rabbit persona with a campy zeal that made her more than just a great rapper, but a larger-than-life avatar of empowered hyper-femininity. Somewhere, Soulja Boy was taking notes.
Then there’s DaBaby. After years of bubbling beneath the mainstream, the North Carolina rapper broke through this spring on the back of the viral hit “Suge.” In the music video, the 27-year-old parodies his tough-guy schtick by likening himself to the Death Row Records CEO and notorious ‘90s hip-hop strongman Suge Knight. He’s clad in a ridiculous fake muscle suit with a cigar perpetually in his mouth, and at one point forces another rapper to record while physically restraining him.
In real life, DaBaby wanted people to know that he was only kind of kidding. Rapper Cam Coldheart found this out the hard way. In May, the fellow Charlotte native recorded himself approaching and antagonizing the Kirk rapper in a Louis Vuitton store. In a subsequent video, Coldheart can be seen crumpled in a bloodied, pantsless heap on the mall floor, with DaBaby standing over him seeming to gloat about having just knocked his lights out.
This style of boots-on-the-ground guerilla marketing didn’t always have the best outcomes. But for the most part, DaBaby’s Popeye the Sailor Man with a SoundCloud brand of machismo became his calling card. And the favorite refrain for a growing number of commenters was that DaBaby—who stands at a modest 5’8”— had the “energy” of a much larger man. DaBaby’s newest hit, “BOP”—its musical-inspired video magnified his macho tropes to theatrical levels—solidified his standing as someone firmly in on the joke who also happened to know how to put out slappers.
It’s obvious that Soulja Boy isn’t exactly the culture’s chosen messenger for this new landscape of popular music. But his influence on what became the playbook for success in 2019 cannot be overstated. Over a decade ago, he laid the foundation for 360-degree digital branding, engineering virality, and leaning into cartoon character-like zaniness. His attempt to tap into this again on The Breakfast Club—erratic and clumsy as it was—served as a reminder of the power he once held. Sadly, it only managed to earn him a short-lived meme and a few weeks of renewed notoriety before a swift decline. Soulja Boy would, in fact, spend the majority of the year falling in and out of legal trouble with allegations of assault, illegal firearm possession, and eventually jail time for a probation violation. He has been silent on social media since June.
In his wake, a new group of artists picked up where he could not, and the end result was a crop of exciting, playful, and hilarious breakout stars. Artists like Lil Nas X, Megan Thee Stallion, DaBaby, and others carried forward a more avant garde understanding of authenticity, in which the most entertaining and perhaps even honest version of public persona wasn’t necessarily the most “accurate” one, but the one of your own enthusiastic imagining. It’s a concept that even Drake could appreciate.
In a matter of months, Lil Nas X experienced the delirious spectrum of emotion that comes with overnight success—from the glorious highs of “Old Town Road” to the relentless demands of sudden fame.
Originally Appeared on GQ