The Curious Case of Wale

Posted on

By Shafik Mahama

On a hot summer day in 2010, I took the Tube from Winchmore hill to Hyde Park to meet up with my close friend Oyewole. I was excited because we were heading for the Wireless Music Festival. Jay-Z was headlining but he wasn’t even the reason I had purchased tickets. Wale was. Weeks before when the line up was released, Wale was the only name I saw. Oyewole was obviously more excited about seeing Jay-Z.

A year and a half before this, I had stumbled upon a song on a blog I bookmark and it was from a rapper named Wale. The song was called ‘Nike Boots’.  The song hit me within 15 seconds. I rushed upstairs from my room at boarding school to share my discovery with my friend, Stan. He was skeptical at first but he got won over. That day onwards, our favourite pastime became scouring through Wale’s catalogue. A few days later I would notice that the  anonymous rapper in the intro to the video for the Amy Winehouse’s single ‘Valerie’ was the same guy. That meant he was affiliated with Mark Ronson who’s the coolest guy on the planet.  I was in love.

What intrigued me most about Wale was the wit and personality he brought into his music. He had a slick way of delivering his bars complemented by a repertoire of clever lines and double entendres.  His subject matter was a bit different from the other rappers I was familiar with. His story telling also stood out. At the time, his ‘Mixtape about Nothing’ and ‘Back to the Feature’ projects were what Stan and I dwelt on. Every time he released a new cut, we were ever eager to listen. I recall that his  “CJ The Genesis Freestyle” had a record 266 plays on my iTunes after a week of its release. Olubowale had my undivided attention. This is not even half the story with regards to the impact he had on me: I attribute my love of rap and my interest in the art of rhyming to him.

3 years later, I went on tour with my dad and one of the stops was Washington DC. We stayed there for about 3 days and I remember being so  excited to explore the city this rapper had been yapping about. On my way from the airport to the hotel, I saw so much of what Wale rapped about. I felt cool as I walked through the airport which he had referenced(in on one of my favorite verses of his- ‘4 am’) “I’m at Dulles with luggage flyin’ straight to the money”. Wale had the ability to take you through DC with his music. Being the only relevant rapper from the capital was a chip on his shoulder but he stood his ground whilst still promoting their “Go-go” brand of music.

This whole time Wale was under the wing of English artist Mark Ronson in an indie style alliance. Indie artists tend to have total creative control over their art and I believe this is a reason why I was drawn to him. He made unorthodox rap music. ‘Mixtape about Nothing’ was littered with interesting samples from the sitcom Seinfeld which would have some connection to the subject matter of the song.  Some of the songs would start with a short poem and then transition into rapping. In 2009 GQ declared Wale as “the greatest rapper since Jay-Z” and I saw why. Wale was on top of his game, like Lebron James pre draft day.

His debut album ‘Attention Deficit’  was one of the most anticipated albums that year. For weeks, Stan and I would wonder who would be featured or produce and what it would generally sound like. When the album leaked, I was glued to my laptop screen in my boarding school cubicle searching for a download link for the project,. When I found it, I treated it like a long awaited meal. The album was impressive. ‘Contemplate’ which featured Rihanna on the hook was the song that stood out to me most. The song gave me chills. He starts off by rapping about a girl he’s in a relationship with, who he adores but the feelings don’t seem mutual. On the second verse he goes on further to rap about his new experiences with fame and the difficulties he with dealing with it and compares it to those who died young like River Phoenix and Chris Benoit. He sounded like he was contemplating suicide. It was a solid debut but reports have it that his record label didn’t contribute much as it was under shipped resulting in it selling a mere 28,000 records by the first week mark. This would foreshadow the transition from what I’ll call “09 Wale” to “Present Wale”.

Wale took a lengthy hiatus from rap after the fiasco of his debut. Just going through his tweets, it was evident that it took a toll on him, almost . It seemed like he felt punished for making a good album which was diverse in subject matter compared whilst eschewing the blatantly commercial option. Out of the blue he emerged on the Waka Flocka single ‘No Hands’ with a stellar verse. However, this was  new territory for Wale. Rapping on southern beats and sounding comfortable alongside a rapper like Waka Flocka who as proclaimed he does not write lyrics. Something that would be pretty clear if you ever have the misfortune of listening to his music.  The concern of the core Wale fans about his new path would be akin to that of a mother whose child is mingling amongst the wrong crowd. He released a critically acclaimed mixtape in the summer of 2010 called ‘More About Nothing’ and I am of the opinion that, that was his last solid project. It followed the Seinfeld theme and was downloaded 100,000 downloads in 90 minutes, shutting down various file sharing websites.

In early 2011, Wale announced that he was signing to Maybach Music to a lot of skepticism. Wale’s career path did not dovetail with that of boss, Rick Ross. On the other hand it was seen as a second chance for him since his time at Interscope hadn’t been particularly  successful.

Wale had featured on a GQ cover alongside Drake and Kid Cudi in a feature that predicted that they would sound the death knell on gangstar rap. Wale then went on to release two lukewarm albums, ‘Ambition’ and ‘The Gifted’ which had some decent singles and did well commercially but still struggled for cohesion. It was sort of like an oil and water solution: they didn’t blend well. It seems like Wale was making music to appeal to all sorts of fans, which simply does not work. Even though versatility is a good trait, rap fans like to be able to put rappers in certain categories. He went from ‘Love Hate Thing’ a number reminiscent of the Wale I grew fond of to ‘Clappers’ a strip club anthem on his latest album “The Gifted”. It is often said that you can’t please everyone and it is evident that this weighed on Wale as he worked on these albums. When the album didn’t make Complex magazine’s ’50 best albums of the year’  he called them to deliver a wild rant and threaten violence. My conclusion being that there might be some frustration with the progression of his career. He takes a look at his peers, the likes of J. Cole, Drake and Kendrick and regrets some of his career decisions. J. Cole has Jay-Z, Drake has Lil Wayne, Kendrick got Dr Dre and have all turned out to have successful careers thus far whilst Wale is left with Rick Ross and basking in mediocrity.

Where did Wale go wrong?

What didn’t he do?