“Memes and viral go hand in hand. If you get turned into a meme, you’re viral. If you’re viral, then you’re a meme.”
These were the wise words of DeAndre Cortez Way a.k.a Soulja Boy in a recent interview with BET for the digital series “I Went Viral.” In recent years, Soulja Boy has coasted by on his social media relevance more than his musical output. So his words might seem like the game plan of an influencer, which Soulja Boy kind of is, or someone capitalizing off trends instead of music. To others, he might even sound like a sell-out. Sure, there’s nothing wrong with musicians using social media forums to keep their fans engaged, but openly admitting to trying to go viral is another thing.
It’s true that digital streaming platforms are delivering a death knell to traditional revenue models within the industry, and maybe that’s to blame. But there's another phenomenon that helped give boon to a new age of music, dominated by memes: Southern-led dance rap.
And who has more expertise in this area, other than Soulja Boy? Social media was in its infancy when artists like Soulja Boy, New Boyz, and DJ Unk were coming up, but they provided a blueprint for artists to circumvent the traditional way of breaking into not just hip-hop circles, but the industry as a whole.
When Southern rap first started bubbling up at the forefront of the scene, the lyricism was considered lacking by the old guard. But a key aspect that carried this style of rapping into the mainstream was dance, front and center, alongside catchy hooks and instrumentals, which was prime material for going viral on YouTube.
After the hype around Southern dance rap died down, music skittered back to a more traditional way of operating. Pop stars and top acts stuck with the usual template of drawn out roll-outs on par with the excitement of a circus coming to town. But the thing is, these are mostly musicians who grew up before cellphones became commonplace so they were following the blueprint that was established by acts in the 80s and 90s.
That’s not to say that innovation stopped happening or didn’t happen before. Beyoncé broke the mold when she surprise-dropped her eponymous visual album, which was then followed by another cinematographic opus, Lemonade. Jay-Z has pretty much been ahead of the curve marketing-wise his whole career. Run The Jewels has largely operated outside of mainstream. But at the core, music has always been the impetus.
This new generation of musicians, however, are either millennials who can still remember when dial-up was a thing and were teenagers when Southern rap dance was all over the charts; or Generation Z-ers who have mostly grown up with the internet at their fingertips.
Southern dance rap did more than provide us with timeless cook-out bops—they shaped how younger generations consume their music. The most popular format? Memes. Apps like the now-defunct Vine, WorldStarHipHop, Instagram and TikTok is where music combobulated before it was commonplace to see things like Meryl Streep shouting out bars from Mike Jones’ “Still Tippin'.”
These apps have also helped rap songs like Cardi B's “Bodak Yellow” and Drake's “Hotline Bling” buoy to new heights or enable newcomers like Lil Pump (who went from SoundCloud rapper to overnight sensation after dropping “Gucci Gang”) to break onto the scene. While Cardi and Drake probably didn’t write their songs with the intention of going viral, Lil Pump’s “Gucci Gang” was tailor-made for a social media obsessed generation. Even Lizzo’s “Truth Hurts” blew up after it took over TikTok. Social media is practically Generation Z's version of American Idol.
Buzz is no longer solely about who can get the hottest collaboration or come out with a new style, à la Rihanna during her Good Girl Gone Bad era. It’s also about what can generate buzz on social media through lyrics primed as social media content.
It peer pressures even the most resistant of us into seeing what all the hype is about via Twitter captions, Instagram playbacks and memes that pervade every corner of the internet. Bobby Shmurda’s “Hot N*gga” become an instant phenomenon in 2014 when it took off on Vine. Bobby Shmurda had a stroke of luck and timing on his side, which is what more and more acts not just bank on, but try to engineer altogether.
It probably doesn't help that artist development has become a relic of the past with companies signing more artists than they can possibly promote, and artists struggling to cultivate fan bases that won’t drop them when the next biggest hit steamrolls Billboard. Record labels can’t recreate the feeling and emotions that we get from songs, which is why hit songs can’t be manufactured so easily. Yet memes are second best, evidently.
Which brings us to Lil Nas X.
Soulja Boy’s “Crank Dat” arguably walked so that Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” could run, and run it has. Soulja Boy organically blew up with “Crank Dat” due to popular demand that did not come from any social engineering of his own doing. From there, he did become more clued in to using the internet for marketing and as an extension to his career. Now, the SoundCloud rat pack is using the foundation Soulja laid, with Lil Nas X leading the way.
In less than six months, Lil Nas X went from a college dropout to the single most popular star that America is currently obsessed with after his country-infused trap song conquered the U.S.—and possibly the whole world.
It has hit new heights and broken records in a way that’s never been done before, which isn’t mere coincidence. He was signed to Atlantic despite not having any other music. In an interview with the Rolling Stone, Lil Nas X said he purposely wrote lyrics for “Old Town Road” that could be used as captions for social media.
“It was the first song I genuinely formulated,” he told the publication. “I was like, ‘I gotta make it short, I gotta make it catchy, I gotta have quotable lines that people want to use as captions.’ Especially with the ‘horses in the back’ line. I was like, ‘This is something people are gonna say every day.’
Whereas Soulja Boy was navigating uncharted territory, Lil Nas X emerges a well-experienced navigator agilely surfing the channels. Lil Nas X has the most streamed song of the year by a landslide of a few hundred million, while his actual album only sold 77,000 units, of which only 3,853 were actual album sales, according to the New York Times. What’s more, “Old Town Road” has officially tied the record for the most weeks spent on top of the Billboard Hot 100 chart.
Lil Nas X used social media to turn his song from a meme into the country’s biggest record today. Its catchy refrains, stylized beats, and simple lyrics are easy for Generation Z-ers to catch on and relatable enough for older generations hip to the current musical climate.
Memes, or just going viral, are social currency not deterred by barriers such as geographic location, time zones or language. It’s transient and constantly changing.
Interestingly, rap memes are bringing back the advent of dance challenges like the #woahchallenge and #hitthequan to the point that big names in the industry are partaking, such as Beyonce’s #BeforeILetGo and Ciara's #LevelUp.
The two seemingly divergent lyrical styles have come full circle. You have to wonder: is this the death of pop stars as we know it or will our next icon come purely from social media? That’s a meme in itself.
(L, Photo by Allen Berezovsky/Getty Images for Fashion Media); (R, Photo credit should read JEAN-BAPTISTE LACROIX/AFP/Getty Images)