How Wale Learned to Stop Worrying

“We should probably fight outside right now, then. I’ll probably win—I got the hands,’’ a Wale deadpans. I don’t entirely blame him: I’ve just told him that he’s had me blocked on Twitter since 2014. Offer to scuffle notwithstanding, the 37 year-old DC rapper is in good spirits. We’re in his trailer at Rolling Loud New York, where he’s just finished performing with Rick Ross in a lively set for a packed crowd. A couple of weeks ago he released his seventh studio album, Folarin II, to high critical acclaim. And even if he hasn’t been able to see me tweeting about it—more on that later—the album it easily his best effort since the Obama administration.

Folarin II (which is named after one of his monikers and serves as a sequel to his fan-favorite 2012 mixtape Folarin) takes the same approach that Wale has fashioned into his formula, seamlessly bridging go-go music, trap, and African music together. But this time around, every sonic and lyrical choice feels much more intentional, more carefully considered. The production is warm and lush. And while Wale isn’t above a trite bar, the songwriting overall is tighter and more disciplined, especially on his hooks. His ear for beats has gotten better since that first tape, too. “Poke It Out’’ feels like an obvious summer smash, trading on a clever Q-Tip flip and Wale’s chemistry with longtime friend and peer J. Cole. “Dearly Beloved’’ samples a killer Jamie Foxx performance to tell a layered love story—and at not even two minutes, Wale delivers arguably the best track on the album with direct songwriting and the sensitivity that made him Wale a star in the first place.

It’s been a longish road from there to here. Wale was a “Blog Era” upstart, with his Seinfeld-themed The Mixtape About Nothing impressing fans with its earnestness (“The Kramer’’ is still one of his best songs) and shrewd pop culture references. In the vein of J. Cole or Chance the Rapper, he appealed to fans with his everyman sensibilities, relating insights and anxieties that most rappers, especially at the time, were too proud to discuss so plainly. People saw themselves in Wale: the Nigerian rapper with an encyclopedic knowledge of every Jordan sneaker and unrequited love for his dream girl.

After his debut, he signed to Rick Ross’s Maybach Music Group imprint. Maintaining creative autonomy under a major label can be tough for even the most seasoned musician, but was particularly hard for Wale, a rapper whose strong suit is his intimacy with his listeners. He’s been in the game for ten plus years, no easy feat, but one wonders what could have been: he never quite ascended to rap’s highest tier, but being signed to a major meant he never went on the kind of indie hot streak rappers like Curren$y have managed to architect. These days Wale has mixed feelings on the music business. “If you really love music, you have to be dedicated. You have to deal with what comes with it,” he says. “What comes with it is the music business. And that business will test your joy of music.’’

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