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.
Chafing at the negative reception each successive project received, he took to lashing out on Twitter at disgruntled and disappointed former fans, arguing with, and at times insulting, detractors all over social media. He eventually had his own Kramer moment, running down on Complex staffers after a heated phone call when a feature painted him in a less than flattering light. There seemed to be no respite for Wale left in music. Yet, follow any musical genre long enough, and you’ll come across the trope of music as therapy; writing is a way to exorcise one’s demons. But Folarin never seemed to rid himself of his, he remained as prickly as ever, never quite rediscovering the sense of lightness that accompanied his best offerings — that is, until Shine.
The cover of this latest release communicates the project’s name in simple and straightforward visuals; a picture of the moon against a pink gradient background, clutched in an infant’s fat fist — the fist of Wale’s first child. Fatherhood has a way of changing men’s perspective on life; some say it’s a mellowing effect, others might call it “maturity.” In actuality, it seems to be more of a paradigm shift. Ask any father they’ll tell you from the moment they look their offspring in the eyes and take them in their arms, they see. They see what has weight, what has gravity, what has matter, and what has meaning. Twitter slander is irrelevant. Protecting oneself and one’s reputation and one’s ego takes the backseat to instead ensuring one’s seed is protected, provided for, and gifted with blessed ground in which to grow.
So it is that with Shine, the purpose isn’t to regain some lost sense of dignity or wasted potential. It’s to rejoice in the goals accomplished and the potential of the future. This is Wale at his most experimental and — dare I say it — carefree. From the very first record, the tone is gratitude; “Thank God,” exclaims guest vocalist Rotimi, “We don’t do what we used to do no more.” Wale is clearly concerned with matters of legacy, but also of foundation; he truly embraces his Nigerian roots on his own LP for the first time, branching out into Afropop alongside WizKid and Dua Lipa on “My Love.” The lilting chords are prime loverman Folarin, but without the cheesy faux-Don Juan bedroom-eyes put-ons of tracks like “Lotus Flower Bomb” and “Diced Pineapples.”
He further expands his international dabbling with Reggaeton’s reigning superstar J. Balvin on “Colombia Heights;” here his earlier failure with Gaga works to his advantage, making the effort seem less like a pandering reach, and more like an organic interest in stretching musical muscles that felt constrained by the all the mean-mugging required of posing in front of Maybachs with bottles of Ace of Spades. Wale flexes his dancehall muscles again on “Fine Girl” and completes his latest lap of lyrical exercise on “Smile” with fellow DC-representer Phil Adé, who delivers a standout verse of his own. But instead of leaning into the punchlines, Ralph lays back, tossing them out like off-the-cuff observations. Clearly the time spent with his idol Jerry has been well spent. Wale sounds confident in his delivery and less concerned, with the reception than in dropping gems and letting the listener do the catching.
It would be easy to throw out a cliche about time leading to perspective here, but the truth is plenty of knuckleheads get older without ever growing up. Wale was already wiser and more experienced with the inner workings of the music industry than his compatriots, but still let things get to him. Therapy only really works when the therapist is actually there to listen, or when you stop worrying so much about looking good for them and starting doing it for yourself. For the first time since he signed his first deal, Wale is rapping for himself instead of everybody else. Even when noted music critic Anthony Fantano of The Needle Drop described “My Love” as “one of the ugliest attempts at capitalizing on the Caribbean craze,” on Twitter, Wale’s response was to resort to jokes about the ridiculousness of an outsider mislabeling the genre, tweeting: “I’m offended but I can’t stop laughing tho.” He’s made his best album now that he’s learned to laugh off the trolls, find his smile, embrace himself, and look forward to the future. Let the haters stay mad.