There's really only one way to listen to Waka Flocka Flame.
All of his good songs are gargantuan, imprecise, go-beat-somebody-up symphonies. To call them bangers does not do them justice; when a Waka Flocka Flame song comes on in a room full of partygoers, there will be utter pandemonium. Or, as he puts it: "When they play that shit, it turns to another dimension."
A Gucci Mane protégé who rose quickly from obscurity, Waka's upcoming debut, Flockaveli (Asylum Records), is the most anticipated Atlanta rap album of the fall. It has many nearly forgetting about Gucci's new one and the still-delayed works from T.I. and Young Jeezy. What's most impressive is that Waka has created a new rap paradigm, not based on true-life hood stories (like Jeezy), lyrical complexity (like T.I.), or wit and charm (like Gucci). Instead, it can be called stream-of-conscious goth rap, music that is unflinching, dark and wholly noncerebral. It's crushing, anthemic music that has inspired legions of head-banging devotees, while alienating those who think hip-hop should be about something more than getting rowdy. The success or failure of Flockaveli should prove if he is a worthy heir to Lil Jon's raucous crunk throne, or if — as his detractors insist — he's simply a passing fad.
Many Southern rappers have haters, deservedly so, but Waka is particularly loathed, both among critics (influential scribe Jeff Weiss noted that you can't spell his name without "wack") and hip-hop fans (see: the "Waka Flocka Flame Sucks" Facebook page). And though there has been something of a critical groundswell on his behalf — tastemaking blogger Andrew Noz champions him — even Waka himself admits that he has almost no idea what he's doing.
Take his 2009 break-out hit, "O Let's Do It," for example (later co-signed by Diddy and Rick Ross on the remix). When he crafted it four years ago, he thought it was weak, and only released it as a single at the urging of his mother, rap impresario Debra Antney. "She said that was the one. I said, 'Hell no! Not that.' That was like, the third song I ever made in my life."
Similarly, he never intended for Flockaveli to be an album, rather crafting it as the latest in his string of mixtapes. But his label, Asylum, sought to capitalize on his current domination of the rap zeitgeist by releasing it as a studio album. "I'm a team player," he says. "If the coach says, 'Try this play,' I'm like, 'A'ight coach.'"
Born Juaquin Malphurs, Waka is a former basketball player who is close to 6 and a half feet tall. Though his rap name is said to have been inspired by the sound of a firing gun, or the "waka, waka, waka" call made by his favorite Muppet Babies character Fozzie Bear, the official word is that "Waka" comes from Juaquin, "Flocka" from flaca — Spanish for "thin," though he's quite bulky now — and "Flame" from being, well, hot.
He cut a towering figure when I met him recently at Warner Bros. Records' offices, his braids down to his shoulders, his hulking frame taking up most of the space on a couch. At 24, he hasn't really grown into his body, and he's got the unpolished, loose movements of someone who is still excited to be doing press tours. When I set my recorder down in front of him, he snatched it up and spoke directly into it, as if to be sure his every utterance was being preserved.
There's a warmness about him, one that belies his various brushes with the law, for which he has been in the news almost as much as his music. During a chaotic three-month stretch at the beginning of this year, he was shot during a robbery at a car wash, involved in a shoot-out at Walter's Clothing (reportedly involving Gucci and Jeezy's crews), and briefly jailed for a probation violation. Though he insists that he doesn't seek to emulate Gucci's oft-incarcerated example, he's not exactly apologizing for anything he's done.
"I think trouble follows everybody," he says. "But we just so popular that [we're] always in the public eye, and [our] business is out quicker than anyone else's."
In hip-hop, of course, such notoriety is anything but detrimental to one's career, and regardless of his behavior, he's quickly becoming known as the standard bearer for tear-the-club-up Southern rap.
Surprisingly, his roots in the Northeast run deep. He grew up in Jamaica, Queens, alongside a sister and four brothers, one of whom was run over by a truck when he was in the seventh grade. Truth be told, he's not exactly sure how many siblings he has. "They say my father had 10 kids," he says, adding that he never really knew the man, a Muslim who was in jail throughout most of his childhood and then died shortly after getting out. "They say he got infected with HIV through a needle," he goes on. "That's what I heard through the grapevine."
His mother and her kids moved to Atlanta when Waka was 10 or 11, and eventually settled in Riverdale. He says Antney — a talent manager who helped usher in the careers of Gucci and Nicki Minaj — was tough but fair with him as a kid, and was instrumental in his rap ascendency. (She now serves as his manager.) But he wasn't initially convinced he could make it as an MC, instead concentrating on selling drugs. "I was mired in negativity," he says. But his dopeman career stalled when a friend swindled him out of thousands of dollars by selling him a package of rabbit food. "It looked like weed!" he says. "Then, after that, the guy disappeared. I was like, 'Now I can't do nothing else. I gotta go rap.'"
Gucci took him under his wing, and they paired up with OJ Da Juiceman in the group 1017 Brick Squad. Recently, much has been made of Gucci and Waka's falling out. This followed Gucci's severing of ties with Antney, after allegations that she mishandled many of his concerts. But Waka insists that it's no big thing: "We cool. That's my big dog, that's always going to be my big dog. It's like you and your brother arguing — 'Fuck you, man!' — but then next month, that's your brother [again]."
In any case, Waka began to emerge from Gucci's shadow with mixtapes like 2009's LeBron Flocka James. He confesses, however, that he had almost no idea what his fans were going to like. He still doesn't. One of the only things he knows is that his guttural rhymes go well with the beats of Suffolk, Virginia-based producer Lex Luger. Luger is responsible for more than half of the songs on Flockaveli, including his recent smash "Hard in Da Paint." "His shits are hard," Waka says, another accurate, if incomplete evaluation: Luger's tracks are slower, more sinister, and less stripped-down than typical Dirty South club songs, filled with dense layers of grinding, industrial-style loops.
Almost all of Flockaveli's tracks are about messing someone up or tearing discos down. Even his crossover song, "No Hands," featuring Roscoe Dash and Wale, is strangely fierce, considering that it's about strippers.
Another thing Waka's haters have right: Very little of what he says is memorable. His best lines ("I go hard in the motherfucking paint/Leave you stankin'/What the fuck you thankin'?") get by on bravado, charisma and attitude. His songs actually work best when he, or someone else, simply repeat his name over and over: "Waka Waka Waka!/Flocka Flocka Flocka!" He says his songwriting process consists of channeling his extreme emotions — be they anger or elation — into lyrics written on his BlackBerry, which he does extremely quickly. But he puts very little emphasis on his words, and famously inspired the derision of Wu-Tang Clan member Method Man earlier this year when he insisted that, "The niggas who they say is lyrical, they ain't got no shows." To me he clarifies: "I'm not saying I don't need lyrics, I'm saying I came to get the party started. I didn't come to ride the party for the whole five to seven hours; that's for the lyrical people. If the party is dying down, then 'O Let's Do It' or 'Hard in Da Paint' will probably get some energy back into them."
No one from the anti-Waka crowd can dispute that assertion — particularly after a couple of Rum and Cokes.
Unlike most MCs, he doesn't need deep lyrics to get his point across. His gift is the ability to make something as inane as his own moniker sound like a call to arms, an invitation to get fired up in the name of all that is coarse, lawless and inspiring.