He could have been a one-hit wonder. After Washington DC rapper Wale blew up his hometown scene with a single tune – 2006’s runaway radio success Dig Dug (Shake It) – he could have easily settled for his newfound status as a local celebrity. It fused the city’s trademark go-go beats in its tribute to the percussionist Ronald ‘Dig Dug’ Dixon from legendary DC band the Northeast Groovers (check out his skills on the YouTube clip of the band in action on Halloween night 1993). But instead of wilting, it helped catapult Wale to fame, laying out the musical blueprint that he’s followed to this day, which is that if you can’t define a genre, bend it and make it your own.
Seven years, countless mix tapes and three albums later, Wale (born Olubowale Victor Akintimehin) is still straying as far from classic East Coast rap as can be imagined. Just look at the oddities of this album, which run from an amusing guest appearance by Jerry Seinfield arriving to record the fictitious ‘Album About Nothing’ only to be turned away, to the fact that he’s often not the central attraction on his own songs. Even more unusual for a hip-hop album is that it features some incredible guitar playing from Donald Groover, whose intro to Gullible sounds as slick and smooth as John Frusciante’s playing on Red Hot Chili Peppers‘ Blood Sugar Sex Magik. And that’s even before things get downright baffling – what’s with the remix of Bad sequenced in the tracklist before the original song itself?
However, rather than detracting from the album most of these quirks go some way to define Wale’s supreme ability to mix things up. Yes, he raps well and his honeyed, if raspy, voice is able to be both metronomic and still sound effective bulked out with a bit of delay. Check out how effortlessly he delivers on LoveHate Thing as Wale rips through this mouthful: “Yeah, my affinity grows as the city gets cold/ As you reaching your goals, you going meet you some foes.” And thankfully, his songwriting skills are clearly a million miles from the cut-and-paste stylistic chopping of Dig Dug as he manages to fuse each of the 16 tunes with a whole dollop of soul, whether it’s the syrupy strings on Heaven’s Afternoon or the Marvin Gaye-inspired chorus from Sam Dew on LoveHate Thing (which also features more superb riffs from Groover). With solid, finely-honed production throughout from the likes of Sean C & LV and Stokley Williams, it’s a disc that has the warmth of sounding like it is being played by a live band.
But Wale’s genre-hopping has its downsides, which is that the final product makes little sense as a start to finish listen. It doesn’t flow well and it has a lot of tunes that end up seeming average despite the intelligent writing, playing and acres of guests, such as the navel-gazing Simple Man. It has spots of R’n’B, episodes of heavy club bangers and streaks of clever lyrics without ever fusing to make a compelling whole. However, if you’re feeling generous you might acknowledge that Wale’s in uncharted territory here. Certainly, Rihanna’s appearance on Bad (Remix) blows up the rather weird lovesong, of squeaky bed springs, messages of lost innocence and a woozy screwed beat. And the breezy Cee-Lo Green-infused Gullible is a certified foot-tapper with its brassy underbelly and pre-Prism-inspired lyrics:
“What if they told you this music was bogus?
The government run it, they controllin’ the culture
Would you believe that? If you read that?
What if they told you the iPhone was tapped?
They see all of your browsin’ and know you via your apps
And Twitter and Instagram is really like middle men
And internet soldiers, everybody was carrying Macs.”
But for all of the radio-friendly deviations from the norm in this non-traditional rap album, Wale the East Coast bad-boy gets his own back with the tongue-in-cheek surreal drug tune Rotation. Featuring a hilarious opening chorus of: “Five blunts in rotation…” and a heavy beat, it’s followed by the hilariously twisted verse from Georgia rapper 2 Chainz who spits: “Good head is my motivation/ Gas her up like a service station/ Purple drank on you perpetrating /While you perpetrating, I’m renegotiating.”
Let’s hope that Wale can continue to renegotiate the rules of hip-hop. Because if he can, he will forever be so much more than just DC’s one-hit wonder.