It was once said of ‘iconic’ rock critic Lester Bangs that he didn’t get the breadth of acclaim he deserved, because this required the reader to work with the notion that the best writer in America could write almost nothing but record reviews. This might seem an odd way to lead into gabbing about Atlanta’s Waka Flocka Flame - even if leavened by a smartass reference to their shared fondness for purple drank - yet there’s a parallel. If you can accept the idea that one of the most exciting rap albums of recent times has come from someone who doesn’t actually do that much rapping, then Flockaveli awaits you. If you can’t, then this is gonna be a tough one.
The UK release of this, Waka Flocka’s debut artist album – with a faint inevitability, he’s already racked up ten mixtapes since emerging two years ago – comes five months after it dropped in the States. Warner Bros presumably consider Juaquin Malphurs, as Waka’s known to his mum, an outside bet to worm into British rap heads’ sensibilities. This goes against the fact that Gucci Mane, whose US success has arguably cleared the lanes for Waka to come through (he’s a member of Gucci’s 1017 Brick Squad crew, and Gucci was until recently managed by… Malphurs' mum), has done pretty much dick all over here. Nor, for that matter, did any of Flockaveli’s chief precedents, i.e. the collected crunk/Atlanta rap/Southern bounce stars from the Nineties onwards. The elements that makes this stuff exotic to those who get it are the same which will probably keep Waka from attaining mass overseas appeal.
On many of its 17 tracks, Flockaveli is at odds with itself. It’s a ‘commercial’ rap record by pretty much any definition of the term, and has yielded US hit singles, notably the loosely R&B-ish ‘No Hands’. It’s also built on grotesquely loud and fully uncompromised beats. Atlantan or otherwise Southern-fashioned rap production often has a weirdly psychedelic murk about it – possibly brought on by whichever combo of green, white and purple passing into the faces of its creators, but also thanks to the reliance on stripped-to-the-frame repetition. With a very few, very arguable exceptions (the depthcharge bass drops and ambient-pop keyboard line on ‘Grove St. Party’; ‘Smoke, Drank’, more of which in a sec), Flockaveli fucks off anything even that subtle.
On one hand, it’s appropriate that energy drink mogul and sometime rap shouter Lil Jon gets to produce a track on here, seeing as his lurid and bellowing albums have clearly provided at least some of the Waka blueprint. On the other, ‘Smoke, Drank’ is about as calming as it gets here, by virtue of a twinkly synth backing that sounds like an ambient trance record from the mid-Nineties. Ultimately, Waka is from a different era of rap, so it figures that the furiously prodigious Lex Luger – at the time of writing, not even 20 years old – crafted beats for almost two-thirds of this album.
That Lex's most recent high-profile gig was ‘H.A.M.’, the first fruits of the imminent Kanye/Jay-Z collab Watch The Throne, tells you he’s borderline A-list now, but doesn’t tell you of his ability to turn what might have been thuddingly simplistic club tracks into strenuous chain-whippings. It’s all the more entertaining when Waka is merely barking slogans and refrains over and over – “POW POW POW POW bitch I’m bustin’ at ‘em” to reel off one of several memeworthy lines on here – while behind him Lex is doing obscene and undanceable things on an 808. This album is absolutely PACKED with sound: something like ‘Bang’ is about as maximalist as rap can logically be, and doesn’t offer a second of contemplation.
Which is to say that Flockaveli is inevitably going to overwhelm or repulse as many people as it charms into its web. It’s hard to imagine it being a grower, either: despite the multitude of things going on in most of these cuts, if you’re not feeling Waka on initial contact, it’ll probably never happen. Once you realise that ‘Hard In Da Paint’ wouldn’t actually lose anything if it was only 90 seconds long, it does give pause for thought, but if you’ve caned it enough to twig that, you’ll probably also realise that it’s also – still – a high watermark for 2010 rap.
‘Course, that’ll probably say it all if you’re part of the dissenting chorus railing against this guy. From Method Man, who last year suggested that any MC as fundamentally content-free as Waka was destined for a brief career, to incoherent head-the-balls underneath YouTube clips suggesting you listen to some real hip-hop like Immortal Technique instead, Malphurs’ nuts are permanently stepped on. Insofar as you can count on the fingers of one hand the lines on this album which are interesting when written down, the crit squad have a point. In implying that there’s no value in penning, and duly delivering, line after line after phrase after chorus which is a fucking blast to yell repeatedly… well, it might not be art, but it’s an art, y’dig? Or I could just cede here to Roscoe Dash, and his almost wistful singsongy couplet on ‘No Hands’: “Rain, rain, go away / That’s what all my haters say”. As with the rest of his verse, a perfunctory strip club eulogy, he’s speaking for Waka as much as himself – and there’s no reason to think that Waka is going anywhere for the foreseeable.
8Noel Gardner's Score