By Jena Ardell
By Brian McManus
By Chaz Kangas
By Sound of the City
By Peter Gerstenzang
By Katherine Turman
By Chris Kornelis
By Brian McManus
New rap meme, same as the old rap meme: form over content. So it's useful to get this out of the way straight off: Waka Flocka Flame is not, in the parochial sense, a good rapper. That much has driven the conversation surrounding the Georgia-based MC since he began appearing in earnest last year alongside Gucci Mane, his mentor, one-time business consort, and (maybe) former friend.
"I ain't got no lyrics," Waka said during a radio interview in February. "I'm straight blunt. I ain't got time for lyrics. I don't even care about selling records. As long as I get them shows for $15,000, four to five days out the week, I'm happy."
At first glance, this statement seems not just short-sighted, but a bold rejection of the traditional vision for hip-hop as a social tool. At the time, Waka's debut single, "O Let's Do It," was growing a national profile thanks to a remix featuring Diddy and Rick Ross, but he was hardly a recognizable figure. At best, he was Gucci's dread-shaking sidekick; at worst, a bodyguard who wandered onstage during shows.
So when Waka's thoughts first made the rounds, some artists took umbrage. "Let him feel that way," Method Man said in a radio interview later that month. "But the people that are in the know, that know what time it is, know that if you ain't saying shit out your mouth, your time is very slim in this motherfuckin' game." But then something unusual happened: Unprompted, Method Man apologized, claiming he was taken out of context. He gave Waka his blessing. This is a not uncommon series of reactions. "What the hell is this garbage?" you may ask yourself on first listen. "Why am I being yelled at? Why don't his words rhyme? Seriously, what is wrong with this person?" And then you change your mind.
Though Waka, neé Juaquin Malphurs, was born in Queens, his roots are in Riverdale, Georgia, where he was raised. And there's something undeniably local about him—his accent, his calm demeanor, his easy-come-easy-go attitude. When Waka was shot in the arm by an unidentified assailant in January, he told MTV, "I got in the ambulance, the [EMS attendant] was like, 'Lift up.' I'm like, 'Lift up? This hurts! You ever been shot before?' " When asked during another interview how he became involved with music, he answered, "I just did a song, and it worked. So I thought I could do 10 more." But where Waka's personality seems nonchalant to the point of offense, his music is as unhinged and exuberant as anything to happen in Southern hip-hop in years. Gucci is an effortlessly garrulous assassin, while Waka uses his voice like a Howitzer. BOW-BOW-BOW-BOW, his ad-libs go during many of the songs on his debut full-length, Flockaveli. It's a fascinating and punishing album, as violent and gun-crazy as any in recent memory, but also mesmerizing in its commitment to ferocity. Waka Flocka Flame may not care about lyrics, but he embodies free-flowing energy manifest in onomatopoeic fury.
Untended, that energy could be a stray annoyance. Fortunately, he has hitched his wagon to the most exciting producer in hip-hop at this moment: Virginia-born Lexus "Lex Luger" Lewis, who takes his name from the running-forearm-smash-throwing professional wrestler, and built Rick Ross's summer-suffocating "B.M.F. (Blowin' Money Fast)" and "MC Hammer" with thudding snares, ascending minor-key melodies, and an otherwise ineffable sense of bigness. Luger handles 11 of the 17 songs on Flockaveli, and it's as much his album as Waka's—he is a force whose tinnitus-inducing tracks demand replay. Though sometimes they're also difficult to get through—it literally hurts to listen to them. Luger created Waka's first two hits, "O Let's Do It" and "Hard in Da Paint," and the latter in particular, with its ratcheting drum sound and digitized French horns, turns clubs into mosh pits, and mosh pits into funeral marches. In fairness, it's not just Luger, it's that spirited Waka chorus—"I go hard in the motherfucking paint, nigga/Leave you stankin', nigga/What the fuck you thankin', nigga."
Waka seems to understand his place in history, too. "We the new Wu-Tang/The new No Limit," he raps on "Young Money/Brick Squad," and it's not an ill-fitting comparison. Waka has been compared to Ol' Dirty Bastard before for his incomprehensible tenacity, but No Limit–era Mystikal is a useful comparison point, too. Ditto Pastor Troy, who appears on "Fuck the Club Up." But mostly, he's unique. Waka is a rap outlaw in a sense, disinterested in dishonesty or disputation, and maybe incapable of either. He doesn't get embarrassed. Waka and Gucci appear to have drifted apart in recent months—Debra Antney, Waka's mother, is Gucci's former manager—though a reported feud seems to have been blown out of proportion. They continue to support each other via Twitter, though neither is featured on their respective new albums. The final song on Flockaveli is called "Fuck This Industry," but it's the most tranquil thing here, with Waka adopting a whispering tone. Gucci receives a shoutout; this is the closest we get to 21st-century beef. Ultimately, the inflammatory Waka is an avatar for a new rap economy: few words delivered with force, with an eye to the stage and the check that arrives with it. Fuck this industry, indeed.