Children of the Grave: Rap Has Its Metal Moment
"Tyler, the Creator and Waka Flocka are anti-pop, sure, but they're also interested in being just plain fucking scary."
Last Thursday, skate-prick rap collective Odd Future signed off Tumblr and appeared on national television. Sporting ski masks with inverted crosses scrawled on them, and bouncing across a smoke-filled stage, Tyler, the Creator, the crew’s charismatic frontman, along with Odd Future point guard Hodgy Beats, performed their 2010 single “Sandwitches” on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon. The morning after, the Internet — which basically birthed Odd Future as well as most interesting rap these days — celebrated the group’s bizarro entrance into the mainstream.
Many of the same people losing their shit over Odd Future on Fallon were also busy downloading Salute Me Or Shoot Me 3, a victory-lap mixtape from Waka Flocka Flame, which featured the same sort of headbanging, fuck-you-up rap that made his debut album Flockaveli a success last year. Less than a week after a Grammy Awards show that was proud to acknowledge only the kindest hip-hop (B.o.B, Drake, a once caustic now “recovered” Eminem), Odd Future’s off-the-rails TV appearance, plus a new batch of noisy aggression from perhaps the genre’s most polarizing figure, were welcome disruptions. Tyler, the Creator and Waka Flocka are anti-pop, sure, but they’re also interested in being just plain fucking scary. Think of them as the first truly metal rap stars.
Rap and heavy metal have been talking to one another for decades. Public Enemy’s next-level noise was infused with the guitars of Slayer and the group would later tour and record with Anthrax. By the mid-’90s, horrorcore (Gravediggaz, Flatlinerz) and the drugged-up skeleton cover art of Houston’s DJ Screw were kicking around. There’s also Three 6 Mafia’s John Carpenter piano beats. Don’t forget Rage Against The Machine. And while Ice-T’s Body Count, Limp Bizkit, and Lil Wayne’s Rebirth were rap-metal fusion abortions, they’re part of the continuum too.Even now, Dipset producer Araabmuzik grinds up Cannibal Corpse in his sample freak-outs, and beatmakers Drumma Boy and Lex Luger (who produced much of Flockaveli), turn the Three 6 influence into an even more ominous gothic stomp.
Tyler and Flocka, however, are more fully invested in the aesthetic. They adopt metal’s dark imagery and nod to the genre’s sonic palette, but they also understand that gloriously in-your-face music like metal must be emotionally resonant too. The video for Tyler’s new single “Yonkers” features the rapper in front of a fixed camera, as he wriggles around in his own skin, exposes the word “KILL” on his hand, eats a bug, then vomits, and in the final moments, hangs himself. The beat for “Yonkers” is a lurching, queasy thump (imagine a cough-syrupy, lo-fi take on Jay-Z’s “Hard Knock Life”). It’s ’90s rap meeting up with black metal’s treble-filled clatter. Tyler’s lyrics are a contrarian mix of depression, sacrilege, and pop potshots: “I’ll crash that fuckin’ airplane that faggot nigga B.o.B is in / And stab Bruno Mars in his goddamn esophagus.”
Between the Jesus jokes and menacing of pop cornballs, Tyler punctuates “Yonkers” with devastating references to his personal life. Right after joking about “dancing around the house in all-over print panties,” he derails the song to tell listeners, “My mom’s gone / That fuckin’ broad will never understand me.” Damn. Tyler’s debut album is titled Bastard, and on “Yonkers” he continues his public struggle with a father whom he’s never met. “Fuck all the fame and all the hype, G / I just wanna know if my father would ever like me / But I don’t give a fuck, so he’s probably just like me — a motherfuckin’ goblin.” Tyler’s next album is titled Goblin. A sad, fucked-up circle of abandonment issues is seemingly, depressingly completed.
Flocka doesn’t really rap at all. He shouts violent threats over some of the most decidedly radio unfriendly beats heard in quite some time. “Bustin’ At Em,” Flockaveli’s first track, is a loop of glitching, broken-down drum machines, gun-shot sound effects, and shards of heavy metal guitar. The song’s video is a homage to the film No Country For Old Men, with Flocka in the Anton Chigurh role. Warner Bros. sells a Waka Flocka Flame Halloween mask. The album cover for Flockaveli is splattered with blood.
Flockaveli is, first and foremost, an unrelenting, angry sea of volatile beats and guttural vocals, but it’s Flocka’s confessions that make the album matter. On “O Let’s Do It,” amidst a stop-start carnival beat and mindless boasts of robbing drug dealers, Flocka confesses, “Ever since they killed my nigga Trav, I been poppin’ pills and actin’ crazy.” On “Hard in da Paint,” he yells: “When my little brother died, I said, ‘Fuck school!'” On Salute Me or Shoot Me 3’s “All I Need,” he combines those poignant asides with an uncharacteristically slow-paced, soul-baring rap. The song is dedicated to his brother, and on the hook, Flocka croons, “R.I.P Trav, you know we miss you.” It’s Flocka’s version of “Changes” from Black Sabbath Vol. 4. Or Ozzy’s “Mama, I’m Coming Home,” if you wanna be a dick about it.
Most positive reviews of Flockaveli harp on those asides. They give Flocka an origin story and create caves of meaning behind his anti-social fight rap. But Flockaveli would be just fine without them too. Hip-hop, just like metal, only really needs to be noisy, angry, and awesome. For Tyler, though, mom and dad issues are a tangible expression of what’s at stake for a rapper too often (and too quickly) categorized as simply, the next big troublemaking thing. Tyler and Flocka’s bombast set them apart from even-keeled wimps like B.o.B and Drake, but it’s their emotions, every bit as on-the-sleeve as B.o.B’s “Airplanes” or Drake’s “Over,” that make them a real threat.