Things are looking up for Wale. After years of critical confusion and uneven sales, the DC rapper may finally be able to have it both ways: the adoration of his underground fans and an audience for his mainstream productions. It's not a moment too soon: his highly-anticipated third album -- his second with Rick Ross' Maybach Music Group -- is supposedly due in February.
Nearly five years ago, Wale (née Olubowale Victor Akintimehin) emerged as a poster boy for how the Internet could save underground rap. He repped his hometown, DC, with go-go samples and spit adept rhymes that belied a serious ambivalence about, among other topics, the role of race in the hip hop narrative and his own twin desires to be famous and to be real. After a series of successful mixtapes, Interscope released his first album, "Attention:Deficit," in 2009 to much fanfare and few sales. On a commercially successful, but critically panned sophomore effort, "Ambition," he became a disappointing example of the pitfalls of underground hype: choose the ethos that won your early fan base or choose commercial success.
Representing the general critical attitude, Pitchfork's Jayson Greene wrote about 2011's Ambition:
Never say Wale doesn't learn from mistakes: Everything that dragged down Attention Deficit, from hipster-baiting to its bewildering guest roster, has been jettisoned, along with introspection and any lingering modicum of respect for women. On Ambition, Wale is reborn as an unrepentantly shallow strip-club rapper, and the production is a gleaming phalanx of freshly minted beats from Ross' MMG assembly line.
Indeed, the wordsmith behind nuanced critiques of the music industry ("The radio play him every second/The second that I see him we gon' get em'/And turn this rap singer to a ringer") had turned his considerable talents to ringtone-friendly dance tracks and complaints about gold diggers. Wale, the sellout. Wale, the unsure. But still: Wale, the sought-after collaborator. Wale, of the deft lyrical wordplay and flawless flow.
Just as 2012 was running out, he released an exciting new mixtape, Folarin on Christmas Eve that harkened back to his early days of complex rhymes and infectious hooks, and also received a Grammy nomination for his single "Lotus Flower Bomb" from Ambition.
His new album (entitled "I Ain't Perfect"), is thus now a tense point of potential redemption for an industry favorite who hasn't managed to quite find his place. It makes the opening line to his new song, "Back 2 Balling," all the more auspicious: "You deserve to be admired if you make it back quicker than you lost it."
Performing at the Bowery Ballroom in New York City on Monday, Wale clearly had mixtapes on the brain. He ran through much of his newest work, including standout slow jam "Bad" (with Tiara Thompson) and the energetic, sing-along "Skool Daze" and aforementioned "Back 2 Balling," with French Montana. And he gave a nod to early fans with songs like "Slight Work" and "The Break Up Song."
Even as a stage performer, Wale is a bit tricky: His intensity is quiet and he lacks the volubility of a showman. His speaking voice is thinner and less clear than when he's speaking in verse. On the other hand, he is perhaps too full of swagger, too generous of his energy to be fully sequestered in the studio. Despite this, there were brief moments of totally euphoric flow. On "Actin' Up," and "Change Up," Wale was at his best -- at once loose and focused -- in lockstep with an ecstatic crowd.
Before Wale came on, the legendary producer DJ Clark Kent, Wale's collaborator on Folarin took to the stage to explain a bit, much to the dismay of an increasingly impatient crowd.
"Most of y'all listen to Wale's music and you just think 'oh my god, great songs!' The reason why I work with Wale is cause Wale is one of the best rhyme sayers right now," he told the packed crowd.
"What you need to understand is when I met him 10 years ago, he was spitting like that then. So many people missed how good of a lyricist he is that the reason why I did it is that people recognize me for working lyricists I.E. Jay-Z, Biggie, they know me for doing that. So what I wanted to do is work with my little brother so they understood he's a dope lyricist."
The audience, through their loud booing at this delay, made it clear that they already understood. And they must have: They knew every word. Even the ones who had showed real enthusiasm for an opening DJ's mindless set of radio hits later sang along to "Legendary": "Fuck fame, fuck money/Fuck everything anyone can take from me."
That's why the great controversy over Wale's place in the underground or the mainstream might just be blogger hand wringing. The truth is that most fans can contain within them a taste for homespun consciousness rap and gleaming, radio-ready pieces. Clearly the performer can do the same.
But it's a lot easier to make such distinctions if you aren't on the hook for a best selling record. That may be why Wale released a throw-back mixtape that is the legacy of his soulful, early work: perhaps his third album won't be for those fans.
"The 'Folarin' mixtape is really a culmination of every mixtape that I've ever had, together," Wale told hip hop radio station Hot 97's Peter Rosenberg the day of its release. "Because the album -- they might not be so lucky. I wanna do the album for me."
In the same interview, he added that he took criticism so much to heart because he truly cares about his fans' experience of the music. And that may explain why his fans also are so closely attuned: they criticize because they care. But if the fan response -- at Monday's show and online -- was any indication, Wale, the feeling's mutual.
Have a listen: