- SPIN Rating:6 of 10
Label: Warner Bros.
Waka Flocka Flame changed rap with his pain. On his 2010 major-label debut, Flockaveli, the Atlanta rapper — aided by an in-house production team anchored by FL Studio prodigy Lex Luger — offered 70 nearly relentless minutes of rashly penned roars, stacks of scattershot ad-libs, and machine-gun 808 rolls. This quickly became the only sound in street hip-hop, but not one of its successors has managed to match the perfection or intensity of the blueprint. It's like the Black Sabbath of contemporary gangsta rap.
What still sets Waka apart is his emotional nudity. When he opened last year's Duflocka Rant mixtape with the lines "Brother dead / Daddy dead / Auntie got HIV / Lord, can you please take this rage out of me?" it was a pretty apt mission statement for his career to date. He’s made catharsis an aesthetic. This darkness was bolstered by his once camera-shy and press-weary public persona. But as he's adapted to fame, he's revealed himself to be more of a teddy bear than a grizzly: Now he's smiling in photo shoots, goofily embracing journalists, and filling his previously barren Twitter account with an endless stream of friendly RTs and self-affirming platitudes. This all seems healthy on a personal level, but how exactly does an artist adapt to happiness when struggle is his muse?
He's still figuring that out. His sophomore commercial effort, Triple F Life, definitely embraces this newfound joy in its title, which is short for “Friends, Fans & Family.” (If family or friendship strikes you as an unlikely theme for a gangsta rap album, you probably need to reconsider what the base function of a gang is.) This would be an endearing gesture if the music itself didn't so blatantly betray the premise. His fans like that one thing he does really well, and while there's some BOW BOW BOW BOW aggression here, the album isn’t generous enough in its application to deliver the sort of singular assault that made Flockaveli a masterpiece.
Instead, Waka takes the Nicki Minaj route, splitting the album between something close to his old underground formula and more shameless bids for pop-radio spins. Unlike Nicki, though, he does so without the savvy to formally segregate the track list, nor the instinct to make the pop half really work. (He never goes full "Starships" either, which is probably a wise move.) The transition makes some sense on paper. Flockaveli was so deeply soaked in arpeggiated synths that it wouldn't take much to tip its sound toward pop-trance bliss; there's an equally brief distance between his d-boy barks and LMAFAO's loutish chants. Waka seems wholly capable of selling out with tact, but tact is precisely what's missing on the most hollow efforts here. "Get Low" is a mess of AutoTune vomit, awkwardly stacking Minaj, Tyga, and Flo Rida atop one another in a Jenga game of BDS playmaking; "Fist Pump" is every bit as clumsy and shameless as the Jersey Shore-inspired title implies. On it, Waka gets outshined by radio star B.o.B, and unsurprisingly so: B.o.B's before-its-time 2007 flop "Haterz Everywhere" achieved the precise sort of trance-rap excellence that Waka seems to be aiming for here.
A few of his producers come closer to cracking the crossover code. Luger, relegated to just four tracks, strips his sound down to its barest elements with the unnecessarily Drake-assisted and oddly mournful strip-club anthem "Round of Applause." Newcomers Skyy Stylez and Troy Taylor offer a logical and strangely harder successor to Flockaveli's sole pop outlier (and biggest hit), "No Hands," drawing the Luger tension deeper into the brightness of Trey Songz' hook. These are interesting experiments, but after months of radio push, they've been revealed as minor hits, at best.
The record's other primary mode, where the truly Waka-esque Waka-ness resides, is equally disenchanting, but for entirely different reasons. The grand triumph of Flockaveli was that it found such depth in such a simple formula. Each single seemed heavier and more vengeful than the last: The low end trembled harder, and the ad-lib clusters kept getting more dense, so much so that the initially monstrous breakout hit "O Lets Do It" seemed downright flimsy in the presence of more refined follow-ups like "Hard in the Paint." Triple F makes no effort to advance the form, and this motionlessness makes the results feel downright regressive. The hook of "Let Dem Guns Blam" is a nearly phonetic repurposing of the 2009 mixtape classic "Love Dem Gun Sounds" (the update features no actual gun sounds), while the bouncy "Clap" is recycled directly from the year-old underground tape Salute Me or Shoot Me 3. Naturally, it's a standout, a genuine hit amongst very competent retreads.
At this point, it seems like Waka wouldn't have had the energy to turn out a Flockaveli 2.0 even if he'd wanted to. It's wise that he recognizes now as a time for growth, but he might need to realign his expectations. Triple F's finest track sidesteps the pop/street dichotomy completely. Nestled quietly at record's end, the half-sung, acoustic-guitar-driven "Triple F Outro" is basically the Waka version of a late Everlast song, energy rap inverted as blues. In part a tribute to recently murdered collaborator Slim Dunkin, the track explicitly draws forth the sadness often buried in barks and gun sounds: "Pardon me on this song while I'm spilling my pain / A part of me getting weak when they mention your name." Smiles or not, it would seem that he still hasn't escaped the burdens of the street (which might not be the mind-set most conducive to producing the sort of radio hits for which Triple F Life aims). But "Outro" does offer a strong incentive for Waka to retain his catharsis while still moving forward: Processed pain tends to be more interesting than processed pop, anyway.