Waka Flocka Flame has “it” factor. Whether you consider that a good “it” or a bad “it” depends on which side of the rap ideological spectrum you fall on. Fan and critical opinions aside, there’s one thing all rap followers can agree on: his 2010 major-label debut, Flockaveli, completely altered the contemporary rap landscape. Buoyed by Lex Luger’s, apocalyptic 808s and slasher film synths, Flockaveli was a relentless assault, 17 songs of boisterous ad-libs, machine gun sound effects and post-crunk raging – the rap equivalent of a Red Bull IV drip. The aggressive “trap” sound that it spawned quickly became monolithic in street rap. Two years after Flockaveli, Flocka is enjoying the spoils of a rapper in the midst of a full-on crossover marketing blitz – cover stories for traditional rock publications, endorsements with left-leaning interest groups, posing for hipster-baiting celebrity photographers. Whether or not these new comforts and an expanded audience will cause Waka to lose the primal urgency that made Flockaveli a gangsta rap epoch remains to be seen, but Waka’s career has taken a turn towards corporate synergy that’s impossible to ignore.
The 600 or so people in attendance at the Kool Haus got to feel that synergy first-hand, when opener, hometown girl and recent Brick Squad signee, Reema Major, took the stage. Though she’s just 17, Reema has sustained a steady label-fed buzz since she released her debut mixtape, Youngest in Charge, in 2009.
There’s an annoying and limiting tendency to rank every new female MC (Azealia, Iggy, Angel) in relation to rap’s reigning queen, Nicki Minaj. That said, it’s equally annoying and limiting to discount Minaj’s influence on this current crop of newcomers. Clad in a white jacket over a red midriff bearing top, black tights that only ran all the way down on one side, and sporting pink and blue streaks in her hair, Major didn’t exactly steer clear of Minaj’s wacky aesthetic. She quickly performed “Party and Bullshit” from her sophomore mixtape, 15 Going on 25, and “Rep My City” from the forthcoming IDGAF, but neither really resonated with the crowd due to Kool Haus’ impossibly bass-heavy soundsystem stifling any opportunity for Reema to showcase her prodigious technical skills. Still, Reema – who is clearly being groomed for stardom (her deal is a joint venture involving five companies) – displayed the kind of manic enthusiasm and vitality that could prove infectious with some seasoning and space.
When Waka took the stage a few minutes later, the sparse Kool Haus crowd erupted. Entering to a cut off the fourth installment of his awesomely titled Salute Me or Shoot Me mixtape series, Waka assumed the role of animated band-leader, first standing at the front of the stage so fans could touch him and snap photos up close, then bouncing from one of the stage to the other and scream rapping with gleeful aplomb.
“Shout out to the whole motherfuckin’ T-Dot,” Flocka said looking out into the crowd. “I’m turnt up in here like you guys. And since I got a lot of A1 fans here, I’m fixin’ to give y’all a classic,” before launching back into his rowdy conductor act for “Bustin’ At ‘Em,” this time half-screaming the lyrics over his too-loud tracking vocals and shaking his dreads like a head-banger. The crowd – a diverse mixture of girls, snapback wearing pseudo gangsters and suburban bros – responded like any decent band would, jumping up and down in tune with Waka’s dreads.
The energy went up a notch when Flocka performed his verse from Machine Gun Kelly’s “Wild Boy.” The crowd – many of whom seemed to be recent converts to the Cult of Waka – started the night’s first real mosh pit. That Waka’s “Wild Boy” verse drew one of the night’s biggest reactions should come as no surprise – Machine Gun Kelly is an artist who occupies the lane Waka has been trending towards since he started promoting Triple F Life in March. The album itself is a strong example of Waka’s race to the Machine Gun Kelly middle. While Flockaveli was a gangsta rap album with virtually no concessions, Triple F Life is rife with them. Most fall into the kind of clunky mainstream-baiting misstep territory (“Get Low” “I Don’t Really Care”) that tends to alienate a rapper’s core fan-base, but that doesn’t apply to Waka, who is as beloved for his goofy personality and ad-libs as he is the content of his music. At the Kool Haus, the crowd reacted to both songs with the same enthusiasm as more traditional (and effective) cuts from the album like “Candy Paint & Gold Teeth” and “Lurkin’.”
Waka, for his part, appeared to be going through the motions when it came to actually performing the songs; save for the occasional a capella, he was entirely content to let his tracking vocals do the heavy lifting. But what he lacked in actual performance technique, he made up for with energy and cartoonishness, hopping off stage and wading his way through the audience several times. Waka’s catalogue is well-suited for this type of non-rapping, party starters like “No Hands,” “Grove St. Party,” and “Rooster in my ‘Rari” pop live like they do at any house party or club – no assistance necessary.
Near the end of his set, Waka performed the closing song from Flockaveli, “Fuk This Industry,” encouraging the fans to chant “fuck this industry” along with him. At the end of Flockaveli, this read like a mission statement: A rapper openly flouting music industry conventions to make a brand of hard-headed street rap imbued with pathos, paranoia, and no plans of crossing over. Performed two years later, following the release of an album containing songs better suited to Flo-Rida or Pitbull, with over 31,000 (mostly positive) tweets, and a penchant for captioning every Instagram picture with a fan “new friend,” it’s evident that Waka has fully embraced his role and newfound niche in the industry – as gangsta rap’s Lil’ B.