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Soulja Boy talks viral fame, Kanye’s tweets, ‘This Is America’ and more

The Crank That rapper comes to Tampa on Thursday.

The Dab. The Dougie. The Whip, the Nae Nae and the Stanky Leg.

Each time you've done one of these dances, you might owe Soulja Boy a tip of your cap.

"I really do like the dancing, these new dances that they're coming out with. I feel like I'm a part of that," the rapper said by phone recently from Los Angeles. "I definitely support these new dance trends."

As well he should. A little more than a decade ago, Soulja Boy created one of the first viral dance crazes to take YouTube and the hip-hop industry by storm: Crank That (Soulja Boy), the song that owned the fall of 2007.

Crank That was everywhere, topping the charts for seven straight weeks, and no matter where you heard it, you were likely to see someone skittering from side to side and rolling their wrists to its steel drum-flecked beat. He performed it all over the world — Dubai, Toyko, Amsterdam — and when asked to name the greatest celebrity he's ever seen doing it, he doesn't hesitate: "Probably Beyonce."

Soulja Boy was but 17 at the time, which means he's still only 27 today — younger than the Weeknd, the same age as Quavo. But in social media years, that practically makes him a wily veteran.

"Back then, everybody wasn't on it like it is now," said Soulja Boy, who on Thursday will perform at the USF Sun Dome alongside fellow mid-2000s party-starters the Ying Yang Twins, Petey Pablo, Chingy and Twista (click here for details). "It probably would have been easier today, and so much more viral. The music industry changed, the viral and Internet game. I just feel like you got more eyes on you now."

One thing that's changed since 2007 is the incorporation of streaming numbers, including YouTube spins, into the formula behind Billboard's Hot 100. That helped Rae Sremmurd's Black Beatles hit No. 1 when it became the de facto soundtrack to another viral craze, the "mannequin challenge." And just this week, video streams helped Childish Gambino's This Is America swipe Billboard's top spot from Drake.

So is there a direct line from Crank That to This Is America? In a weird way … yeah, kind of.

Soulja had nothing but praise for This Is America, though he stopped short of offering his own interpretation of its depictions of violence and chaos.

"I think it was dope," he said. "It was something creative, and he's basically expressing his opinion and his thoughts on the culture, and what's going on in society right now. It was a dope video, nice concept."

Don't expect Soulja to take the political route back to viral stardom. While he has respect for socially conscious rappers like Kendrick Lamar and Joey Badass ("Growing up and being black, I'm definitely going to feel where they're coming from"), he is more interested in making party music, "songs where you want to just have fun and stuff."

He, like most everyone else who follows hip hop, has been keeping up with Kanye West's recent tweetstorms about philosophy and black history and Donald Trump. And like most everyone else who follows hip hop, he's at a loss for words.

"I honestly don't know," he said. "I'm trying to figure out what he's doing with it. I don't know. It caught me by surprise, you know what I'm saying? I don't know, man. Kanye is Kanye, though. He's always been very outspoken, and he's always been very creative and different. They label him as a genius. I'm a fan of all of his music. I like Kanye, but yeah, I don't know. I guess he's just trying something new. I don't know where he's going."

Soulja's relatively muted Kanye take may reflect some life experience talking. While he managed to follow Crank That with some other decent-sized hits, including Kiss Me Thru the Phone and Turn My Swag On, he's become better known in recent years for social media feuds with artists like Chris Brown and Ice-T.

These days, he said, "I try to keep everything (focused) on the positive stuff I do, nothing too crazy. I try not to second-guess myself a lot. But I make sure if I post something it's going to be something that the fans like. It ain't going to be nothing too crazy."

Now he's old enough to look down at the next half-generation of rappers below him, the Lil Pumps and Lil Xans and XXXtentacions of the industry, whose intense social media personas helped fuel their unlikely rises to real-world stardom. And he wonders how different things would be were he in their shoes today, as he once was way back when.

"If I broke through as a 17-year-old right now, man, I don't know," he said. "Part of me, I guess, would be the same as all the young rappers coming up now, probably doing the same thing."

Yesterday's MySpace video is just today's Instagram story. Soulja Boy probably would have found a way to take Crank That viral either way.

"If you ain't got the social media, you ain't got nothing, especially today," he said. "You've got to have your social media game on point."

— Jay Cridlin