“Wack” is the dirtiest stain a rapper could receive. But last week, Waka Flocka called himself wack. During an interview with Complex’s Everyday Struggle, he explained that by the time he reached the $30 million mark in 2013, he felt like he had no more reason to rap. “What was I rapping about? I’m rich. I wanted to be rich,” he recalled.
He added, “from that time to right now, I wanted to figure how can I become a billionaire and a multibillionaire off of business ’cause I did it with rap. I was a wack rapper. I knew I was wack…but I was real…my realness overcame my wackness.”
There’s nothing wrong with admitting when art is a means to an end, especially if you’re really good at your craft like Waka. Flockaveli and the LeBron Flocka James mixtapes are trap-crunk hybrids that serve as a vital link from the late ‘00s to the early ‘10s for Atlanta rap. But there are fans who don’t look so highly on these projects.
From MC Hammer to Soulja Boy and Lil Yachty today, there have always been rappers criticized by rap purists for supposedly watering down rap culture with music strong on fun factor but weak on multi-syllabics. Waka Flocka (and his onetime brother-in-rhyme Gucci Mane) carried that dubious cross at the turn of the 2010s, with songs like “Shawt Bus Shawty” ridiculing their intellect. Most artists resent such criticism, but Waka accepted it. His mixtape series titled I Can’t Rap submits to the idea.
His recent comments reflect those of Famous Dex, who surmised that he doesn’t make “real music,” and A Boogie who recently called all of his hits “mediocre.” Artists can’t help the opinions projected upon their art by consumers. But it’s disheartening when that same projection affects how they engage with their craft.
The major caveat of Waka’s assertion that he’s “a wack rapper but a hell of an entertainer” is his lineage. He was born in Jamaica, Queens, and moved to Riverdale, Georgia at nine. He has said that some of his favorite MCs are Nas, Jay-Z, KRS-One, and DMX. It turns out that even as an Atlanta rap legend, he’s also just another 33-year-old Queens native who can’t see past Nas.
Rappers are often put on a pedestal, but they’re regular people susceptible to the same conditioning and biases as any other person. It’s evident in the way that Waka spoke to Shepherd Express about his foray into the rap world:
“I’m not into rap. I say that a lot because I literally jumped into a sport. It’s like getting drafted into the NBA when you’ve never played college or high school basketball. It’s like, ‘How did I get here? How was I even drafted?’ I don’t even know how hip-hop started, to be truthfully honest with you.”
His metaphor ignores the reality that, for better or worse, there’s no barrier for entry in rap. There is no formal draft process that stamps you as an MC. There’s no vetting process in the music listening experience. If an artist has something the people want, they will be patronized. One day, Waka was just a kid in the background of Gucci Mane videos. But after Gucci’s 2009 incarceration on a probation violation, “O Let’s Do It” resonated and success came.
His brand of “blunt rap,” as he deemed it on Everyday Struggle, captivated an audience. “O Let’s Do It” lines like “Locked my C.E.O. up / Now it’s back to coca,” and “When my little brother died I said f*ck school” from “Hard In The Paint” hit fans in the gut. He parlayed his infectious energy and natural charisma into reality shows and other entertainment ventures. Waka’s timeline is a quintessential story of rap success. There’s beauty not just in his ingenuity, but the music that served as the catalyst for it all.
But unfortunately, Waka feels like he gamed the rap world instead of bolstering it. Famous Dex may feel similarly. Though a 2016 domestic abuse incident may have dampened his commercial potential, just one begrudged listen to “OK Dexter” demonstrates Dex’s unique mic presence. But in 2017, he pitted his sound against Jay-Z’s 4:44 and declared, “You wanna listen to some music, go listen to 4:44 that’s real music, what we do is just entertainment, we’re just having fun.”
He added, “If you don’t respect the OGs then f*ck you.” But how much do these OGs respect him? The barometer for “good rap” is defined almost solely by proximity to the mid-’90s golden era of rap. We’ve seen Pete Rock, Ice T, and other veterans come out over the years and denigrate everything that deviates from their standards as “mumble rap” that’s killing hip-hop. But what’s left of center doesn’t deserve to be pushed offstage.
Lil Yachty landed squarely in the crosshairs of hip-hop traditionalists when he arrived onto the rap scene with tracks like “1 Night” and “Minnesota.” Ebro of Hot 97, a staunch figure of rap’s old guard, called Yachty a “high school ass rapper” in 2016. The friction between he and Ebro led Yachty on a futile chase to prove his rapping ability. It’s arguable that Yachty lost himself in that pursuit, as albums such as Lil Boat 2 and Nuthin 2 Prove lost the charm of his breakout hits. Despite realizing that, ”Older hip-hop people, they don’t understand evolution,” he still tried to appease them — to the detriment of his own catalog.
Artists like he and Waka can’t define the quality of their artistry by an arbitrary barometer of lyricism, especially when the most vocal proponents of “real hip-hop” don’t even support the artists they performatively celebrate. Elzhi, Royce Da 5’9, and Boldy James are just a few incredible lyricists who will, no offense, likely never go platinum or helm a major tour despite having hoards of fans who advocate for them in public. These fans dehumanize their theoretical favorites as mere talking points in a bid to downplay other sounds, but they don’t truly support ‘their own.” That’s why they don’t even deserve to have a controlling interest in constituting good rap.
Waka, at his best, made music that he deserves to feel proud of. It’s one thing for him to feel like Nas makes better music, but it’s another to feel like Nas’ brilliance invalidates his own craft. His recent comments were a fascinating example of how reductive discussions about rap affect how artists view their craft and end up hurting the art. Waka’s could never be wack, but the people and factors that created a climate where he feels that way are.