Waka Flocka Flame and the wages of fame
In the world of Waka Flocka Flame’s album, Triple F Life: Friends, Fans & Family, out this week, money gets you almost everything.
The list of things money can’t buy is short but important: safety, peace, and, perhaps, happiness. The situation isn’t just a recapitulation of the old mo’ money mo’ problems saw. At least, it doesn’t feel that way. Over the course of this, his second album, the inability of money and fame to offer the most basic peace of mind becomes an existential threat that darkens everything it touches.
Though born and raised in Jamaica, Queens, Waka Flocka Flame (Juaquin Malphurs) moved to Riverdale, Ga. in the fifth grade and has made his career as a scion of southern rap. He's risen to prominence over the past few years as Atlanta rapper Gucci Mane’s protégé. With his first few releases—particularly his early hit "O Let's Do It"—and his 2010 debut album, Flockaveli, Waka appeared to offer little more than a boisterous, aggressive version of Dirty South drug rap.
But just a few months before that debut, Waka became more the victim than the beneficiary of his own rising fame, robbed and shot at an Atlanta carwash. A recent profile in Spin outlined the contours of Waka’s other woes: the violent death of his best friend, rapper Slim Dunkin’; his mother getting picked up by the police; his house being raided. Waka’s life, perhaps especially since his success, is less sanguine than sanguinary, and it would be easy to see Triple F Life's darker tone as a celebration of nihilism and violent decadence, but it’s more complicated than that.
Waka's new album appears structurally split into two halves: the first is packed with upbeat, celebratory party anthems ("Round of Applause," "Get Low," "Fist Pump"); the second tends more toward moody, regretful tracks, laden with death and depression ("Lurkin'," "You Ain't 'Bout That Life"). Yet there's something more complex happening. Along with a number of club-ready bangers (including two tributes to booty clapping), the party half culminates in a track called “Candy Paint and Gold Teeth.” It's a lovingly rendered tribute to the South’s treasures—soul food, strip clubs, hospitality—as well as less state-tourism-department-sanctioned attributes of Waka's own Southern paradise: unlimited access to sex and drugs, friends who would die for him, and legions of fans. Yet while the mood turns in some of the tracks in the latter portion of the album, the life described is the same, and the titular elements—fans, friends, and family—become the grinding worries of Waka's life, rather than its prizes.
On his early hit "Hard In Da Paint" Waka raps, “When my little brother died I said fuck school." That's the etiology of being Waka: a sense of guilt and responsibility leading inexorably to self-destruction. On the new album, in the early track "Let Dem Guns Blam," there's a similar line: “Afraid of the dark so I’m forced to shine.” Again, there's Waka's psyche exposed, and his compulsions rearing up. Even though he's been foisted into the limelight, his gaze centers on all the most ruinous parts of fame and riches. It's not ambition or hard work that's gotten him where he is, but something more fatalistic, some impulsion that's more anxiety-inducing than victorious.
“Rooster In My Rari,” a song ostensibly about getting head in an expensive sports car, makes a pit stop for psychopharmacology: “Desperate needs for them Xans, where my Da-Da at?” Not too many other rappers need anti-anxiety meds to deal with road head. Waka's is a sort of mechanistic universe fueled by raucous partying, the leaden foot of anxiety on the pedal. Or, to use another metaphor provided by the author himself, Waka's life is a neat and savage simple process — “Let them guns blam./ This a .44 bulldog/ It cannot jam.”
With this in mind, another listen to the party jams finds them everywhere tinged with emotional cost. Waka sounds, at times, downright mirthless in describing the hedonistic pleasures of the club or the bedroom, and both settings have a savage, out-of-control feeling. The line between a celebration and a disaster seems to nearly disappear, and on some of the later tracks, that disaster again is turned inward. "U Ain't Bout That Life" sounds, at first, like a censure of fakes and phonies, but a closer listening sounds like Waka's turning his pen on himself. Lines like "Type to hit your hood with a body guard/ That's so not squad" and "You ain't bout that life/ Just because his body full of ink" pull close details straight out of his life (he's famously tattooed, for instance) in a vote of non-confidence. "Cash," a family affair featuring Waka's brother Wooh da Kid, is less a celebration of cash than a description of its grim and thankless acquisition.
The album's production is sonically varied, though there's a constant underpinning of brittle drum machine and bombast that's been promulgated by Waka's now not-so-hidden production talent, Lex Luger. The first half of the album sees Luger and Southside—another of Waka's producers of choice—stretching their sound slightly. This expansion is best seen in "Fist Pump," less a song than a half-full magnum of Cristal hitting you upside the head in the club. The poppier first half features guest spots by hit makers like Trey Songz, Drake, Meek Mill, and Nicki Minaj. The second half, despite the odd synth finial and space-age spandrel, is more spare and menacing, and the guests include Southern stalwarts like Bun B, Ludacris, Alley Boy, and a posthumous Slim Dunkin’ verse.
Triple F Life offers something for a variety of listeners without the compromises such a mix usually entails. It's a sustained portrayal of a complex personality. Its party anthems take detours into existential angst while its heavy songs often lose the plot and retreat to good-life cliché. As such it offers an understanding of Waka Flocka as conflicted, drawn in a repelled by his roots and his fame alike. While it's not an unqualified, front-to-back success, it is a strong, complex statement from a rapper fighting the demons of good fortune.