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)

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