Spotlight On: Wale

wale

It’s not a coincidence that Wale’s new album is inspired by his most critically-acclaimed project to date, 2008’s The Mixtape About Nothing. With The Album About Nothing, he wants to regain some of that praise. “This is my fourth album. I want some respect,” he recently told Billboard.com.

In some ways, Wale can only blame himself. After the failure of his messily assembled but intermittently inspiring 2009 debut Attention Deficit led to a break with Mark Ronson’s Allido imprint, Wale aligned himself with Rick Ross’s Maybach Music Group and took on the louche trappings of mainstream rap. His tonal shift was marked by a cameo appearance on Waka Flocka Flame’s “No Hands.” “I’m with Roscoe [Dash], I’m with Waka, I think I deserve a chance,” he rapped. “I’m a bad mu’fucka.”

Wale’s 2011 comeback album, Ambition, had much better production than Attention Deficit, and a pair of hits in “That Way” and “Lotus Flower Bomb.” But it sounded anonymous, as if Ross and Co. had cooked up a batch of urban pop bangers for maximum commercial impact. Ambition remains his biggest seller to date, yet it had the effect of perplexing his audience. Now, we don’t know what to expect from him.

In most cases, that’s a good thing. Wale is an unusual vocalist, and he rhymes as if he’s skittering across the track, rushing to get all of the words out of his mouth, and adding odd time signatures to the beat. When he’s matched with a compelling topic, like “Diary’s” end of a love affair, or “LoveHate Thing’s” conflictions about being famous, he engages in ways unlike any other rapper. But his stylistic quirks sometimes leave him sounding disengaged, as if he’s trying to find the center of a song that often doesn’t warrant his effort.

2013’s The Gifted amplified the confusion. Does he consider himself a proud inheritor of D.C.’s vaunted go-go funk tradition, as displayed on “88”? Is he an introspective vocalist akin to J Cole? Or is he a shamelessly pop rapper who isn’t afraid to make dumb radio hits like “Clappers” and its “Da Butt”-inspired chorus. Perhaps that’s why his work tends to draw sharply divided reviews. In his zeal to encompass post-millennial hip-hop, he often splits us into gratified and enthusiastic supporters, nonplussed critics, and pure haters.

If early reviews are an indication, The Album About Nothing won’t change that dynamic. Jerry Seinfeld may appear as advertised, but it’s largely in the form of interludes. For example, Seinfeld notes how someone stops him mid-walk on the street and says, “You’ve got really white shoes”; Wale turns that into a dense commentary about the price of materialism. Contrary to the famed Seinfeld observational comedy “about nothing,” The Album About Nothing is packed with weighty societal issues. And some of the music Wale employs isn’t memorable. Much like Lupe Fiasco, Nas, and too many other superior lyricists, he’s not as adept at picking strong backgrounds as he is at laying out a subject.

Give Wale credit: He raps with audible passion on this one. “I can’t move with too many rap dudes,” he rhymes on “The Middle Finger.” “In the booth, truth the only tool I trust.” He proves he’s not an opportunist, and that he cares about his art. While it may be years before the rap world decides what Wale’s legacy will be, he’s not going to wait around for us to figure him out.

(Rhapsody – April 1, 2015)

Wale, Attention: Deficit (2009)

Attention: Deficit is Wale’s first official album after numerous online releases, including last year’s “Seinfeld” homage The Mixtape about Nothing. But the Washington, D.C. rapper already believes he’s a celebrity. “D.C.’s never seen such progress/So bitches on the scene seem quite stalkish,” he observes on “Center of Attention.” Seemingly worn out by daily coverage on Nahright.com, he adds, “I wouldn’t wish fame on my enemy/Paparazzi’s like a lifetime sentencing.”

For all the ego-boosting Internet notoriety, however, Attention: Deficit is Wale’s show-and-prove moment. Surprisingly, he mostly eschews blog-friendly battle raps for introspective numbers. Songs about unwed mothers (“Be Right”), wayward Lauren Conrad types (“90210”) and being dark-skinned (“Shades”) explore his sensitive side. R&B songbirds Marsha Ambrosius, Chrissette Michelle and Jazmine Sullivan lend prominent guest vocals. Talking to the ladies over glossy, symphonic pop fuels Wale’s goal of Kanye-sized crossover appeal. (“Chillin’,” which merges Cool & Dre’s plodding beat with Lady Gaga’s wanna-be-M.I.A. cadences, is a particularly crass attempt.) But his best tracks retrace his go-go roots: on “O.G.,” the Dap Kings’ horn section swoop ferociously over producer Best Kept Secret’s crackling rhythms, while mentor Mark Ronson loops a hard funk bassline for “Mirrors.”

Straddling the line between street and pop, Attention: Deficit doesn’t quite attain the pop Zeitgeist. But it sheds further light on Wale’s evolving personality, and his circuitous story-raps reward deep listening. “I asked Mr. West for a little help,” he notes on the David Sitek-produced “Triumph.” “Realize us new niggas gotta get it ourselves.”

(Spin – August 10, 2009)

Ambition (2011)

Contrary to its title, Wale’s Ambition is less ambitious than his uneven 2009 debut Attention Deficit. That may be a good thing. He still uses florid melodies and occasionally dips into go-go rhythms, particularly on the standout “Double M Genius” and the hit single “That Way,” the latter sampling from Curtis Mayfield’s “Give Me Your Love.” His rhymes are less introspective, though, as he turns his adventures as a semi-famous rapper into an urban pop confection. (“DC or Nothing” is an exception.) Wale’s Ambition is platinum success; musical aesthetics will have to wait.

(Rhapsody – October 28, 2011)

Wale, The Gifted (2013)

Mercurial rapper Wale has a lot of haters, and he uses much of The Gifted to address them with sharp responses like “The Curse of the Gifted” and “LoveHate Thing.” But by adopting a scattershot approach to his third album, from interpolating Tears for Fears’ “Mad World” for “Vanity” to aiming at radio charts on the low-denominator “Clappers,” he fuels criticism that he’s too unfocused to reach his potential. The rousing “88” and “Black Heroes” brings him back to his beloved D.C. go-go sound as he shouts on the latter, “Tell these niggas this is my house.” Next time, he should prove it.

(Rhapsody – June 21, 2013)

Wale, The Album About Nothing (2015)

Although it features interludes from Jerry Seinfeld, Wale’s latest isn’t filled with observational comedy about daily errata. However, he tackles issues like black pathology (“The Pessimist”), materialism (“The White Shoes” and “Success”), and his many haters (“The Middle Finger”). The music is wildly overproduced – emphatic choruses underline every hook – but at least he’s rapping with more passion than he has in years, at least when he’s not harmonizing (“The God Smile”). “The Matrimony” is about being mature enough for marriage, but it also serves as a metaphor for Wale’s growth as an artist.

(Rhapsody – March 27, 2015)

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