The pit was packed on Jan. 16 at Atlanta’s Center Stage for Waka Flocka Flame, an act featuring Russ and Kelechi out on their Flockaveli 1.5 tour. The crowd turned up on the dance floor to mosh and grind their way through the night. The air was thick with the heavy perfume of Mary Jane before the party even started.
Kelechi, the opening act, hails from Marietta, Ga. He started his career as SUBMiT, but changed his stage name to Kelechi, his given name, as a means of embracing his Nigerian heritage. While most concertgoers see opening acts as an opportunity to pregame or grab a T-shirt before the lines get long, Kelechi had many fans in the house singing along to his music. His single “WANT,” gained the attention of Mountain Dew’s music magazine Green Label Sound and earned him a trip to SXSW in 2015. His DJ, Ukan, did a great job keeping the set moving along, and he was clearly having a great time with the sold out crowd, rapping along with Kelechi from time to time. He exited the stage via the photo pit to exchange fist bumps and high fives with some fans.
Up next was Russ, a prolific producer, rapper, and member of the DIEMON crew with 11 albums to his name. He is not your typical Atlanta rapper. Russ isn’t yelling “Shots! Shots! Shots!” in your ear; instead, he wants to sit down and have a long conversation with you over a bottle of liquor. His music will take you to the darker, more quiet corners of the block party. His productions are smooth and highly listenable. I wish that the polish and attention he brings to his studio productions carried through to his onstage performance. The stage seemed big for him. The crowd was full of his fans, and I heard lots of people singing along to his music, but I wanted to see more charisma and command from him. Nevertheless, at the end of his performance, admirers were clambering to get close to him, take his picture, and ask where they could buy his jacket (You can get it on his website here).
After a brief intermission, Waka exploded onto the stage with a large group of friends and fans. At that moment, the whole energy of the place shifted. The dancing in the crowd turned into moshing. Onstage, people were taking lots of selfies and passing around bottles of Patron. People in the crowd held their phones in their outstretched arms towards the stage, to have the rapper take a selfie with their phones. Waka barely stopped moving to stop to talk to the crowd. He didn’t have to. He leaped and moshed from one end of the stage to the other for almost the entire set.
Girls begged to be pulled onto stage. Girls begged -me- to pull them onstage. That was weird, because photographers are usually invisible. Desperate times call for desperate measures. Everyone there wanted to be close to him. Those not lucky enough to be pulled into the party onstage got their chance when he leaped into the audience and wandered out into the crowd for a few songs. The lights on stage and in the house went down, and he was lit by nothing but the ever present cell phone flashlights and cameras as people clambered to document him and their closeness to him. Later, he took a ‘break’ by heading back to join DJ Whoo Kid at the DJ Booth to take shots and spin hits by his friends and collaborators.
Towards the end of his enduring 90 minute set, some of the crowd started to filter out early to beat traffic. When you’re as big as Waka Flocka is now, you’re bound to get some folks at your shows that aren’t true believers. Those people may have gotten out of the parking deck faster, but they missed something very special when Waka had all the lights turned off, to be lit only by everyone’s cell phone flashlights and lighters while he spun a freestyle about his childhood and the hardships he’s faced to get to his place now. When he was done, he handed off his microphone, walked off stage without a word and headed downstairs.
Backstage offered no rest for the wicked, though, because there were fans and hangers-on waiting for him, to be in his presence and to snap photos of and with him. And Waka has a presence, even off stage. He’s tall, lean, and handsome, with an attractive smile. The dressing room after the show was a mellow environment; fat blunts were passed around alongside bottles of liquor and delicious-looking cupcakes. Selfies were taken, assessed and re-taken, and there was a friendly conversation and laughter throughout the dressing room. I wandered out of the haze around 2 a.m., past the crews sweeping up the bottles, flyers and other post-concert detritus. I’m sure the party carried on, as Waka basked in the success of his concert and album release.