If you’ve spent any amount of time on Twitter in the past eight or so years, the odds are high you’ve seen one of the following:
A. Wale slander.
B. Wale angrily responding to said slander.
C. Someone wondering why exactly Wale spends so much time angrily responding to slander on Twitter.
There really aren’t any easy answers to that last one. You could say that Wale really, really cares about how his music is received by the public. More accurately, you would say Wale cares a great big ol’ bunch about his music being received well, because he works really hard on it. He tries so very, very hard, and the results, to put it very delicately, have been mixed. Shine is the first time in a long time Wale sounds like he’s really having fun making music, and that’s what makes it his best album yet.
But to explain why Ralph feels so free and loose on this project, it feels like we have to explain why he seems so uptight in the first place, which goes back to him wanting to be taken seriously as a “great rapper.” You can hear it in how he delivers every slightly strained one-liner, drawing out that last syllable, pitching up his voice just the tiniest bit; if he could somehow elbow nudge you through the speaker while winking at you and ad-libbing “Get it?” in between bars, he probably would. We’ve all been there; trying to tell that joke we practiced over and over by ourselves only for the punchline to fall flat in front of a crowd. Even the most seasoned stand-up comic has had a night where they bombed and got heckled — one of the most notorious incidents was the time Michael Richards of Seinfeld fame lost it on a raucous patron and went on a widely-publicized racist rant.
Maybe that’s why Wale chose to include a sample of the freakout on his critically acclaimed tape, A Mixtape About Nothing; if nothing else, he can relate to spazzing out after he puts his heart and soul on the line only to meet ridicule from a once adoring audience. The Seinfeld-themed tape, his fourth mixtape after Paint A Picture, Hate Is The New Love, and the genuinely excellent cool-kid collaboration with Nick Catchdubs, 100 Miles And Running produced such a huge response, Interscope snapped him up, making him the first of his “blog rapper” peers to be signed by a major label. When people started throwing around terms like “hipster rap” in 2008, it was likely largely based on Wale’s entire presentation: Raps over “white people music samples” like Justice’s “D.A.N.C.E.,” his slim-fitted jeans and obsession with streetwear labels Nudie and Supreme, and his massive sneaker collection, for which he was touted on blogs like NiceKicks, KicksOnFire, and forums such as Nike Talk. But like the saying goes: “The early bird may get the worm, but the second rat gets the cheese.”
As a trailblazer, Wale had no map to follow, nothing with the hazards and pitfalls clearly marked. There was no ladder to success; he had to free climb the mountain, all the while harried and harassed and weighed down by expectations — those of the label, those of the fans, and especially those for himself. To drum up mainstream buzz, he was saddled with a lead single, the drably-titled “Chillin’,” and a guest feature the label obviously cared more about than himself — Lady Gaga. To put it bluntly, his day-ones hated it, crying “sellout” before the first copies of the album were even pressed and (under) shipped by “the ‘scope.” Needless to say, his first album, Attention Deficit, was a brick, despite covering interesting ground like colorism in the Black community on “Shades,” and getting caught up in the party life on “90210.”
He got his second chance under Rick Ross’ MMG imprint, and ever since has sought to cleanse the bad aftertaste from both his and whatever was left of his hardcore fan base’s collective palates. The problem is, sustaining a career isn’t the same as getting a second chance. You only get one first impression, and the way Wale has been perceived is proof of concept. The drastic shift of sonic accouterments away from the go-go-influenced sound he started with turned away too many of the fans who were first drawn to that local flavor. Joints like “Beautiful Bliss” and “The Prescription” went out the window in favor of “Ambition,” from the album of the same name, and The Gifted’s “Clappers” — a strip club ode that (seemingly) flew in the face of his older, more eclectic style. The new fans of trap-tastic club anthems that came along with his diamond encrusted MMG chain don’t much care for sensitive, vulnerable Wale, let alone lyrical, “watch-me-do-work-BTW-did-you-catch-that-wordplay-in-the-last-sports-reference” Wale.