Rappers are an interesting, inconsistent bunch. Outside of the hard, über-confident exterior that most rappers present to the public, it's a complete toss-up as to what they're like in real life. There are the huge divas, those who try to mirror their lyrics a little too perfectly, the solid percentage who have almost nothing, personality-wise, to offer when they aren't rapping, and many others. The rapper spectrum goes from a guy like Bun B, who is almost thought of across the board as the nicest human ever created, to the MCs who are almost universally loathed.
I bring up all of this because over the course of only a few hours yesterday evening, I had three very different opportunities to become acquainted with rapper Waka Flocka Flame. While one would assume, just on the notion that he's a rapper, that experiencing him in three different mediums would present me with three different Wakas, somehow the opposite scenario took place. Trust me, I don't expect you to believe this yet. Keep reading.
The whole reason yesterday was "Waka Wednesday" was that he's the cover boy for SPIN Magazine's newest edition, and to celebrate, they threw a release party ending with a performance by Mr. Flame himself. Upon arriving at the event, I immediately snagged a magazine and read the fantastic profile by Julianne Escobedo Shepherd. Having spoken to her previously, I knew the article involved her travels with Waka to Paris Fashion Week, but I slightly assumed it would be a fly-on-the-wall tale of a young, dumb kid blowing all of his newly earned cash while shaking his dreads at every turn. While these assumptions weren't entirely false, this was not the takeaway from the profile. Quite the contrary, the star of the article came off as a shockingly self-aware 25-year-old who not only hasn't fully grasped the perks of fame ("The free Bulgari shampoo in his hotel room leaves him incredulous") but almost seems to be going out of his way not to accept it, for fear of how it might change him. And on top of that supremely un-rap outlook on life, he takes it one step further and seems to understand and embrace the fact that he's making music that makes people jump up and down and party, not sit and debate and praise his lyrical content. In perhaps the most important line of the piece, after explaining that he isn't bothered by the lack of lyrical complexity in his music, he says, "People love the music, but they enjoy the person, too."
Yes, he'll always get the tag of producing "ignorant" music, but his reasons for being the way he is is anything but. I was impressed. This was a guy I suddenly wanted to know more about.
After finishing the article, I looked up and realized I was at a swanky party. In New York City. At the Bowery Hotel. For Waka Flocka Flame of Riverdale, Georgia. That realization put a large smile on my face, because I was weirdly proud of him. Some of this pride stemmed from just reading the article and the rest stemmed from the fact that outside of the dreads, and the NFL build, and the sawed-off shotgun charge (and maybe a few other things), we're essentially the same person (same age and same city, what else is there?). It's hard not to cheer on someone from home, so watching him win brought me great joy.
But once I finally put down the magazine and began wandering through the crowd filled with friends, other writers, scattered celebrities, Internet people, and others stoked to see Waka, I was repeatedly presented with the same question:
You talk to Waka yet?
Confused after the first time or two, I naturally responded with, "No, why would I just go and talk to Waka?" After the second time responding that way, a friend told me to turn around. When I did, it all immediately made sense. Guest of Honor Waka Flocka Flame was just strolling around, being chatty. There was a VIP area, but he seemed to lack interest, because that wasn't where all the people were. To be quite honest, performing seemed to be in the back of his mind, because he looked content to just hang out. All night. It sounds ridiculous to say, but if you watched him for about two minutes straight, you would see him poke his head into a few random conversations, with either his body language suggesting he knew everyone there or he didn't know anyone and felt the need to introduce himself. On numerous occasions, I watched him take a picture with someone, and heard him say "Hey, I'm Waka." No disrespect to the Brick Squad Monopoly, but that's the cutest thing I've ever heard. Knowing that I couldn't leave this event without saying hello to Waka, simply because I now just wanted him to be my friend, I approached, dapped him up, and simply said "ATL." His eyes perked up, we gave each other the head nod of approval, and then he said perhaps the most wonderfully puzzling thing as I began to cycle out for the next admirer:
Yes, we gotta talk.
I don't know if he meant in five minutes, later that night, or in a few years, but I still believe him. I genuinely think he wants to talk. I wouldn't have believed that a few days ago, but now I couldn't be more sure of it.
If you still don't have a good sense of how casual and non-superstar he was behaving, perhaps this photo will articulate everything I've been attempting to say:
WAKA GAVE MY FRIEND BUNNY EARS. I HOPE YOU REALIZE THAT'S THE FUNNIEST THING THAT HAS EVER HAPPENED.
There's really nothing that screams "I just want to be normal guy" like giving strangers bunny ears in photos. Wow. This guy might be phenomenal.
After reading about Waka, and then watching Waka behave exactly as the article portrayed him, it was time for him to actually do his job and play for the crowd. In Shepherd's piece, she described the scene of the stiff Paris fashion crowd turning into a "tres chic mosh pit" the second Waka Flocka Flame hit the stage. While the crowd at the Bowery Hotel wasn't necessarily stiff, any rap show in New York City can turn into a performance with hundreds of individuals semi-watching the show, while more concerned with iPhone activities. When Waka initially hit the stage (which was a very small, intimate venue), there were a group of people in the front jumping up and down, but the periphery was shockingly calm. I was slightly disappointed, because up until this point, every aspect of the SPIN profile had come true.
But, as Waka went into his small but solid catalog, it was almost impossible to stay still. My corner, which happened to be filled with a cadre of young writers, quickly gave up on being cool and went from rapping along to jumping in our section to eventually pushing to the middle and taking part in what can only be appropriately described as a "slightly less tres chic mosh pit." For two songs, "Hard in the Paint" and "No Hands," shirts were twirled in the air, elbows were exchanged (one firmly into my face), pushing was a survival tactic, and everyone was losing their mind, pretending they had dreads to shake. And all while this was taking place, there was Waka, standing onstage in all his wife-beater and twentysomething-belly glory, half taking part in the melee, half watching the ruckus that he created.
And as he wrapped up, the look on his face screamed one word: disbelief. While he had already stated that "people love the music, but they enjoy the person, too" with regard to his brand, at that moment he seemed stunned to witness his own words come to life. This wide-eyed approach he has to his own career isn't normal, especially in his line of work. As his profile continues to rise, time will only tell how long he can maintain his blissfully ignorant approach to being a celebrity, but you've got to root for him to retain it. He's an endangered species.