Concert Review: Waka Flocka Flame and The Appeal of the Preposterous

It’s a few minutes after 10 p.m. and a German Shepherd has its jaw wrapped around a man’s forearm. He’s standing onstage at Trees a few feet behind a rapper named Casanova Kris, who started his set sitting in an ornate chair meant to resemble a throne. Security will have a hell of a time getting it out of the venue without smashing into onlookers. Casanova Kris’s music is nothing special, but his stage setup is remarkable for a local rapper—he even has backup dancers. None of this halts the chanting.

“FLOCKA. FLOCKA. FLOCKA.”

Joaquin Malphurs, better known as Waka Flocka Flame, will hop onstage an hour or so later without a dog, or a faux-throne, or really much of anything. There’s no real reason to. Since his emergence in 2009, he’s created a career on the foundation of his own energy. The poor DJ that played before him could’ve repeated a slew of DMX songs from 1998 or put on the soundtrack from Inside Lleweyn Davis and it would’ve had the same effect. Flocka is going to be on stage, whipping his dreadlocks to and fro and nobody’s going to remember a damn thing that came before him.

The reason he has this power is 2010’s Flockaveli, the incredibly strange 72-minute album that, among other things, made art out of the phonetic replication of gunshot noises. He and producer Lex Luger’s brand of combustible rap maximalism filled every space available with some sort of sound. That’s often Flocka himself, yelling his name over and over, barking “BOW,” screaming out his town “Riverdale.” At certain points, it sounds like you’re listening to 13 Flockas.

There’s a certain silliness that comes with this style and, frankly, the Atlanta rapper has always been a goof. His first single, “O Let’s Do It,” is about robbing another drug dealer to get more money to buy more drugs and to sell said drugs. The content is tired territory, but the music is downright preposterous, a carnivalesque club tune with squeaky synths that many rappers who take themselves far more seriously wouldn’t dare jump on. Waka’s menace comes with a wink.

And so, his shows are a lot of fun. When the crowd fumbled the lyrics to the strip club single “No Hands,” he hopped on the microphone and hilariously mocked their mumbling. He later jumped into the crowd and bounced along with fans while performing, leaving security looking stressed.

For all its talk of gunfire and drug sales, Flocka’s music is still largely a party. But a corner of his catalogue is dark and reflective. He didn’t spend much time here on Sunday, opting only for show-closer “F*ck This Industry,” which carries a sentiment that he later perfected in this tweet.  Judging from the handful of new songs he played, though, he’s venturing further from both stylistic ends and moving into rave and EDM territory.

Last year, Flocka had an unceremonious split with mentor Gucci Mane, who spent the last 18 months marinating his brain in chemicals and cultivating some of the most exciting and experimental talent in rap. Flocka was once one of Gucci’s protégés (note the tall lanky man in the background here) –– he had access to the producers that pushed the limits of the genre and helped him expand his abilities. Now, it appears the split’s pushed him from that access.

The three mixtapes he released in 2013, a banner year for Atlanta rap, treaded the same territory he’s mined for years. He toured with Steve Aoki and promised an EDM rap album. As he proclaimed early in his set, “My ghetto ass ain’t know sh*t about no raves until 2013. But I’ll take any crowd.” The EDM crowd certainly seems to have embraced him, as the sold out show reacted wildly for the new material.

The excitable brand of rap Flocka helped push to the forefront has largely left him behind, becoming stranger, more emotive and less processed. But Waka doesn’t seem to mind. He’s found a new crowd and they’re just as enthusiastic about shouting his name back at him.

All photos by Andi Harman.