The Evolution Of Wale


 

Tracing Wale’s career progression from hipster favorite to MMG signee to “The Album About Nothing.”

Seven years ago, a rapper from Washington D.C. captured the nation’s attention with a mixtape based on one of the most successful sitcoms of all-time. In just under two weeks, Wale will be releasing the long-awaited album companion to that Seinfeld-inspired Mixtape About Nothing, but the road he’s traveled between ’08 and 2015 isn’t what you’d expect from his hipster-friendly, underground beginnings.

In that relatively short period of time, we’ve seen Wale try on a number of hats, with his path best represented by a chronological collaboration history that includes The Roots, Lady Gaga, Rick Ross, Fat Trel and Chance The Rapper. In order to track the evolution of his career, sound and label situation, we’ve organized Folarin’s years in the game into four sections, with each covering a distinct moment in his life.

Read on to trace the evolution of one of the most gifted MCs in the game.

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Mixtape Wale

Although most of the national attention came in the wake of 2008’s Mixtape About Nothing, Wale had been running around the mixtape circuit in D.C. for three years at that point, dropping his first in 2005. Paint A Picture and 2006’s Hate Is The New Love both failed to blow up, but they introduced Wale as an ambitious, highly skilled MC, especially on his two-part “A.D.D.” series. These marathon-length tracks had him taking on a bevy of eclectic beats, switching his flow accordingly and rarely even pausing to catch his breath. Here’s part two, from Hate Is The New Love:

By 2007, he had made two key connections in the music world. The first was superproducer and London nativeMark Ronson, who signed him to his Allido Records label in 2006; the second was DJ and (at the time) Fader editor Nick Catchdubs, who went on to mix Wale’s two most successful tapes. The first of these was 2007’s 100 Miles & Running, its title inspired by an N.W.A. EP, and it featured a mix of freestyles and tracks that still bore the influence of D.C.’s go-go scene. The other artists’ tracks that he chose to jump on were notable for their stylistic breadth, with instrumentals from conscious rappers like Common, The Roots and Q-Tip butting up against those from indie acts like Gorillaz, Justice and Lily Allen. This helped Wale establish some hype in critical circles, getting featured on MTV and in The Washington Post soon thereafter, and having XXL call him “the thinking man’sLil Wayne.” One of the tape’s standout tracks, the go-go-ish “Breakdown,” was even featured on the soundtrack of Madden NFL 09.

Just under a year later, The Mixtape About Nothing dropped. Lauded for its unique concept, witty lyrics and blend of humor and socially-conscious subject matter, the tape marks Wale’s true breakout moment. His production team Best Kept Secret, who’d also produced most of 100 Miles, were on-board again, and they kept the freestyles to a minimum this time around, instead opting for tracks that melded classic-sounding samples (many taken from Seinfeld) with go-go’s live drums. Lyrically, this might be the best we’ve ever heard Wale, as he deftly addresses issues that were important to the day and age (such as illegal downloading, ringtone rap, mixtape cliches and Seinfeld actor Michael Richards’ racist rant) without ever sounding too preachy. Self-aware, clever and funny, Wale rapped “Hip-hop heads see a new day, and I is one” on the tape, and it was hard to disagree with him at that point.

 

Interscope Signing & Debut Album

Just before The Mixtape About Nothing, Wale inked a $1.3 million deal with Interscope and promptly began recording tracks for his debut album. In the interim before that project, Attention Deficit, hit shelves, he shared another tape entitled Back to The Feature that, despite not receiving as much acclaim as its predecessor, still kept the rapper’s momentum going strong. With Wale’s newfound clout in the game, he was able to secure production from 9th Wonder and tons of high-profile guest spots (hence the title). The most shocking of these came from Lady Gaga, who guested on a track that would later appear on Attention Deficit. The song, “Chillin,” was presented in rougher, less-mainstream form here, with many fans saying they prefer the mixtape version to this day.

When the official version of “Chillin” dropped, it kind of represented the larger direction Wale’s career would be heading on the album. As we’ve seen with many more rappers who’ve risen from internet notoriety to major label deals in his wake, the commercial debut often erases rappers’ signature quirks and sounds, attempting to smooth everything out into a commercially-viable whole. For Wale, this meant adding in relatively bland collaborations with R&B songstresses (“World Tour,” “Diary”), ill-fitting appearances from Gucci Mane and Pharrell and above all, high-gloss production that didn’t match his previous sound. That being said, his charisma and intelligence shown through the musical hodgepodge (it’s kind of ironic that an album named Attention Deficit sounds so scattered and unfocused), especially on the intensely personal “Shades.” It was one of the four tracks Best Kept Secret produced for the album, and features Chrisette Michele on an Erykah Badu-esque hook.

After Attention Deficit did low numbers commercially, Wale thankfully got back on his Seinfeld-adoring mixtape steez, dropping More About Nothing a little under a year later. Check that out below.

 

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Even though Wale had branched out considerably from his early days of adhering to DC’s local sounds, nothing could’ve predicted his next business move, In one of the more shocking signings in hip-hop history, he inked a deal with Rick Ross’ Maybach Music Group over Super Bowl weekend 2011. One of the label’s four high-profile signings that year (they also got Meek Mill, Stalley and French Montana), Wale was clearly the black sheep among a group of rappers who tended to focus on more gangster themes in their music. But true to Rozay’s promise that the DC native would still be allowed to do as he pleased, Wale’s first tape on the label featured just a few trap beats, no gun talk and only one feature from an MMG artist. The Eleven One Eleven Theory was so popular that it crashed Hulkshare, and succeeded in drumming up a ton of hype for Wale’s debut album on the label.

Elsewhere, Wale did a shockingly good job of fitting in on Maybach’s crew tapes, with Self Made Vol. 1 also dropping in 2011. Focusing his lyrics on battle-style boasts, Wale delivered one of the best verses of his career on the project’s “Pandemonium.”

Wale’s transformation into full-fledged MMG rapper was cemented on Ambition, his commercial debut on the label. The beats are just as high-powered as Attention Defcit‘s, but instead of coming from people like Dave Sitek (a member of indie band TV On The Radio), they come from DJ Toomp, Tone P., Lex Luger and others in the MMG stable. Lyrically, Wale plays the chameleon game, blending in with the luxurious sound and increased prestige by spitting about more materialistic things. That being said, this is still Wale we’re talking about, so even when he spits “Sippin Moscato with models, havin’ exotic dishes” on “Don’t Hold Your Applause,” he has to immediately follow it up with “But it don’t mean shit unless I know that my genre respected.” Increasingly a man of some very intriguing contradictions, Wale definitely showed some growing pains on this album, but not enough to distract from how fun it was to hear him trying out something new. The sales reflected this, as Ambition moved 132,000 more units in its opening week than its predecessor.

Along with some appearances on Self Made II, 2012 also saw Wale dropping the Folarin mixtape. A similar, albeit more easygoing companion to Ambition, the tape took him even further from his humble beginnings, seeing him take on Beat Billionaire trap bombast alongside dudes like 2 Chainz and Trinidad James. This one seemed more low-stakes than The Eleven One Eleven Theory, but still included its fair share of bangers and dope lyrics from Folarin.

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The Gifted & Beyond

When Wale announced his third album, The Gifted, it was clear that he was setting out to make something completely different from all of his previous projects. In an interview with Philly radio station Power 99, he said “It’s going to have one sound, very, very soulful,” and told MTV that it would be his first opportunity to truly “stand on my own sonically as an artist.” What this seemed to translate to was a more organic sound that drew from the expansive soul records made by guys like Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder and Smokey Robinson in the ’60s and ’70s. There was still the odd track like “Clappers” that was a clear attempt to get on the radio, for the most part, this album was less tied to prevailing trends in rap than any of Wale’s other post-Mixtape About Nothing releases.

Instead, we got wah-wah guitars, lush strings and expertly-tweaked drums, all of which added to the project’s ambitious scope. To make a convenient, if not 100% accurate comparison, The Gifted is to Wale what Dark Sky Paradise is to Big Sean: an attempt to create a cohesive project after some more mixed-bag offerings– “IDFWU” is Sean’s “Clappers;” “Black Heroes” is Wale’s “One Man Can Change The World.” Whether you thought it was a classic or not, The Gifted is most likely to be your favorite Wale album. Here’s standout track “LoveHate Thing.”

After The Gifted turned up on many year-end lists (though not Complex’s, which Wale was pretty pissed about), he faced a little more label drama thanks to Meek Mill, who publicly called him out for not supporting Dreams Worth More Than Money, but thankfully that petty conflict didn’t result in Wale being dropped. He spent most of last year trying to get a release date for The Album About Nothing, and when it became clear that it wouldn’t be dropping in 2014, he instead hit us with the Festivus tape as a primer. His first Seinfeld-influenced release in about six years, it whipped day-one Wale fans into an excited frenzy, seeing the rapper bringing all of his major label experience back into a more relatable, relaxed setting. It saw him pairing up with A-Trak, who works closely with Nick Catchdubs at Fool’s Gold, so the tape bears some of the upbeat fun that 100 Miles did. Loopy beats like “Blood Money 3.5” and nostalgic samples (Janet Jackson’s “Go Deep” is flipped on “Girls On Drugs”) butt heads with the trappy Fat Trel collab and a song called “Juggin,” but the loose, eclectic feel works better here than it did on Attention Deficit.

Thus far, the only two tracks we’ve heard from The Album About Nothing are both collaborations with R&B singers, so it’s difficult to say what the rest of the album will sound like. Now that we’ve seen the tracklist, it looks like “The Matrimony” and “The Body” will close out the project, which is dope considering their similarities, but there are still 12 unheard joints. Like The Mixtape About Nothing and More About Nothing before it, all of the album’s song titles begin with “The” (true to the titles of Seinfeld episodes), but that’s about the only other clue we have at this point. It could end up sounding closer to his early material, but with Jeremih and Usher features already on the docket, it looks like Wale might be going for a bona fide big-ticket project with high-profile guests and larger-than-life beats rather than something more homespun. Whatever the case, The Album About Nothing will represent the culmination of one of the most successful, inventive series of releases in recent memory, and you can bet that it will further Mr. Folarin’s evolution even more.


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