Wale knows the ache that comes after being dropped from a label and he knows the glory of bouncing back and going No. 1. He is one of the few rappers to take an acclaimed mixtape series and mold it into an album for sale—having Jerry Seinfeld produce skits for a rap project is a miracle in itself. Success isn’t a smooth road, the bumps come in abundance, and that’s what makes Wale relatable―there’s a balance of hardships and accomplishments, someone who understands wearing a crown but having the sword constantly at your neck. We are two years away from the 10-year anniversary of Attention Deficit, a decade with Wale in the mainstream, and he has seen slices of Heaven and sections of Hell.
When it was released last May, I didn’t love “My PYT,” the first single from Wale's fifth studio album SHINE. The song simply felt like a genius cheating on a test. Unlike his other radio-friendly records, it seemed too easy; too pop-friendly. There’s an expectation of an artist of Wale's caliber. Someone who entered the league with a backpack should always have the sharpest pen, but to truly survive in this business is to adjust and “My PYT” showed an awareness of where melody, pop and radio currently stood. “My PYT” foretold that Wale's return would be one based on the present, working within the system instead of fighting against the times.
“Running Back” with Lil Wayne and “Fashion Week" with G-Eazy further proved Wale’s vision of moving in the direction of crafting popular singles, a different route than the conceptual The Album About Nothing. Each single from SHINE seemed gift-wrapped in the moment, sonically living in the present. Deep lyrical depth has been replaced by melodic, fun songs for the summer, and while they didn’t soar to the top of charts, they didn’t fall on deaf ears. For anyone expecting signs of a dulled pen, “Groundhog Day"—the response to J. Cole’s “False Prophet"—displayed a wordsmith still overflowing with potent lyrics and heartfelt storytelling.
There’s been an ongoing contrast between presents for radio and gifts for underground enthusiasts. The juxtaposition is clearly seen in a song like “Fashion Week” and the lava-scorching freestyle over Premo and Nasir's classic “Nas Is Like”―instead of delivering both through the same medium, Wale has been splitting himself in half. He's often criticized for changing his style but how can you dismiss him with songs like "Brightseat Road Freestyle" and "Black Is Gold" sitting on his SoundCloud? The Wale that so many fans cry for is still very much alive and well. Which brings into question what half will dominate SHINE? The backpack lyricist or the songwriter adjusting to rap's pop climate?
In usual 1-Listen fashion, the rules are the same: no skipping, no fast-forwarding, no rewinding and no stopping. Each song will receive my gut reaction from start to finish.
1. "Thank God"
God has been getting a lot of love these last few months from hip-hop. Shouts to him. Wale enters with spoken word. It's such a shame he wasn’t around for Def Poetry Jam. Imagine him and Kanye on the same stage. Loving the instrumentation, lush and full. Reminds me of The Gifted. I wish Marvin Gaye was alive to add some harmonies. Okay, the vocalist isn’t bad. Singing soulfully, thanking God about escaping the former life. This is like trap soul, no Bryson. Wale adding some singing on the backend, it sounds like his vocals have gotten better. I'm really enjoying all the components of this instrumental. Wale rapping about people only reaching out for features and mentions his latest-born pride and joy. This is a good verse and a good intro. I would love if he went back to the black soul sound of The Gifted with a mix of trap music. “All you'll ever be good at is rolling weed and 2K,” sheesh, felt attacked and I can’t even do either. We might see a more aggressive Wale. I wouldn’t be upset if he pulled the chopper out. I like this, but Wale tends to start his albums strong.
2. "Running Back" (ft. Lil Wayne)
I love the fact Wayne and Wallace are back together, I still have a soft spot for the “Nike Boots” remix. This is a really good hook, I don’t know why people hate it. Each time this song comes on I just want to hit the Shawty Lo jog. I'm currently in my chair paying homage to the fallen D4L member. This is easy listening music, the production is trap-esque without being hard-hitting. It’s like if 808 Mafia wanted to produce a nursery rhyme for Al Capone's great grandson to rap over. Wale's verse is a jog, this isn’t a lyrical exercise but there are a few bars you’ll find yourself quoting. I love the way Wayne comes in with the Auto-Tune harmonies, the kind of groggy sounds you make after waking up from a 5-minute nap 5 hours later. This isn’t OG Wayne, but it is close. The kind of verse you would get from The Drought Is Over 4 Weezy. This is one of the more humorous verses in his post-Carter IV catalog. He is in full float mode, you can hear effort. Wayne hasn’t lost it. It’s a good but not great single. Especially with their affinity for football, this track makes sense. Hit the Shawty Lo to this in the club when the DJ drops it.
3. "Scarface Rozay Gotti"
Keys are sounding nice. Wale giving me Lupe vibes with the singing. I believe that’s Wale, but it kind of sounds like someone else. It’s catchy. I wish the beat drop was a little harder, but it’s smooth. Okay, this is Folarin singing. He’s really letting the vocals go. It's wild how many rappers are singing these days, which is such a shift from when Wale entered the game. I'm wondering if there’s any singing on 100 Miles & Runnin', I must revisit. I like it though. The bars are starting to flow, I just wish this beat was a bit more jubilant, a bit more bouncy. The Morris Day line got a chuckle, word to Purple Rain. The more I hear this hook, the more I’m convinced I’ll be playing it this summer. Wale reminiscing on his career, I really feel like SHINE is a celebration album. This verse sounds like a toast to his years in the game, the champagne-popping moment at the end of the documentary when success overshadows the hardship. I can see it becoming a dreamer's anthem. I’m keeping this one. Accomplishment music, the tune of paying homage to the past and present. The beat has grown on me. I'll go ahead and champion it an early favorite.
4. "My Love" (ft. Major Lazer, Wizkid & Dua Lipa)
These are techno pop keys, he’s about to drop Megaman breakdance music. I wasn’t expecting it. A woman’s voice, very sweet and succulent. These drums are heavy, like colliding a sledgehammer into a wall. The beat just fully formed and this isn’t techno but more of a Afrobeats/dancehall festival vibe. Wale is singing more on this album than I've heard in his career. Another voice? I'm trying to see how close he is to the line between overdoing and perfectly capturing the vibe. There’s a lot happening, this is a different atmosphere for Wale, but he doesn’t sound out of place. Wizkid just came in clean. “My Love” might work well with the new Calvin Harris singles, they all sound to be in a similar realm. Pretty sure the instrumentation has morphed more times than the teenagers in the Power Rangers movie. Talk about layers, far more than meets the ear. Not sure how I feel about this, but on an international/festival level it has the chance of being huge. This is a leap out of Wale's zone, but it's cool to see how he adjusts in uncharted waters. Might grow on me.
5. "Fashion Week" (ft. G-Eazy)
THESE DRUMS! Loving the vocal loop, this is a dance record with the potential to set off fire alarms in clubs. Sort of reminds me of “Let It Loose” from Attention Deficit, a song strictly to make women feel good and dance. He's rapping but I'm lost in the instrumental, a perfect dance bounce. Love the flow switch when he hits the "Wale from the Maybach crew" line. The inflections Wale puts on his voice is an attention to detail that makes every verse different. Somehow, I haven’t heard a rap album featuring G-Eazy in a while. Has he always sounded like if Asher Roth was raised in the Leave It To Beaver universe? I do like the vibe. Wale’s backing vocals and ad libs are another small detail. I'm kind of surprised this isn’t bigger, but he’ll have a song for every fashion week for years to come. Wale has always made sure not to leave out his audience of women, records like this is what they hope to get from the wordsmith. Loving the breakdown at the end. A fun record. Not a song I expect to play much but I’m looking forward to seeing DJs spin this for all the sundress-wearing blue moons in the coming summer weeks.
6. "Columbia Heights (Te Llamo)" (ft. J Balvin)
So far, the songs haven’t been very long. Wale is keeping them below the four-minute mark mostly. Slow build up, interesting flow. Wale sounding like he would have made a cool fourth Migo in a different world. I feel like both are underrated for their ability to tap dance in the pocket with inventive flows. Okay, this is growing on me. This is taking the trap aesthetic and flipping the approach to fit Wale’s lyricism. Songs like this remind me how important it is for artists to find new ways to keep the audience engrossed. OH! I have no idea who J Balvin is. This is different… I have no idea what he’s saying but he’s definitely saying it with some swagger. You have to appreciate adding an international element to the music. Even if you don’t understand the words it’s easy to be enthralled by flow and delivery and Balvin caught my attention for a moment. I could’ve done without the feature to be honest, Wale sounds too good on this to share the spotlight. I will return to this one but J Balvin will have to grow on me like Jay Z on “Biking."
7. "CC White"
Without a doubt, SHINE doesn’t follow a pattern or specific rhythm. Every song is its own little event with no regard for what came prior. Okay, we got some strong, sparse drums. Giving me an ‘90s R&B-esque vibe. Another melody-dripped verse. I like this, though. Ah, I don’t know about this hook. He sounds trapped in a vacuum. There’s no chemistry between his vocal pitch and the beat during the hook section. Verse-wise, there's a lot to like. This is one of the few songs with a specific direction, I need to zoom in and break down what he’s articulating. “New Air Ones cocaine white” takes me back to stepping in my Air Force Ones in middle school. I can’t co-sign the hook, there’s absolutely no chemistry. The string section is warm, a nice addition to the bridge. I want to like this a lot. Wale going back to storytelling. Wait! NOW WE COOKING. DJ SCRATCHES AND A SUBTLE BEAT CHANGE IS GIVING ME LIFE. I wish he would rap over this section, please don’t end without a sweet sixteen. Dammit, it’s over.
Discouraging. That closing section was far more exciting. Now, this is a Wale trap banger. These Majestic Drama drums are hitting harder than an elephant trying to squash an ant. Wale is in the pocket like a thief taking an exposed wallet. There are bars, I'm hearing some quotables worthy of Genius annotation. It feels like chasing the check and securing the bag, and all those other trap rapper terms. This is how you adjust to the climate, working within the modern medium to make something infectious and enjoyable. This is probably the most natural Wale has sounded, purely floating on a cloud. I'm hoping all DJs pick this one up, it’s a smooth transition for so many of the trap bangers already dominating 2017. Can we get Thug on the remix? Peewee? Migos? He has to get one of Atlanta’s most prominent gatekeepers of trap to bless this record. One of the few songs without a feature would have benefited with one. I’m going to hate when this ends, it’s so good. Let the shoulders shimmy, let your foot tap. Good trap music.
9. "Fish N Grits” (ft. Travis Scott)
Wale floating, this is another trap banger. A smooth mix to “Mathematics.” Oh shit, Wale has Travis actually rapping. These two going back to forth together is the strangest union I’ve heard in awhile, maybe stranger than Kendrick and Rihanna, but it works. I love Wale's No Limit/Master P reference. Solid hook, will surely be a chant. My only problem with “Fish N Grits” is how much it sonically leans into Travis' comfort zone but lyrically you can tell he stepped up to stand alongside Wale. His second/third verse has a post-Yeezus Kanye element to it. He is truly an offspring of Ye and Cudi, he can’t hide the influence. The effortless pass of the microphone like an Olympic baton is smooth. I like certain elements, the rapping is enjoyable, but would have loved a different production style. Something we could relate closer to Wale than Trav; it’s his song, but I’m not sure who the featured artist is. [Editor's Note: The song originally belonged to Travis.]
10. "Fine Girl" (ft. Davido & Olamide)
After a smooth buildup, Wale is back with the vocals. He has more singing on this album than Daniel has white Vans. He just entered full dancehall/Caribbean vibes. I have to say, Wale is singing with all his human essence. I wish he gave this to the world last year when “One Dance” was invading our lives, the two songs would have been an incredible duo. Davido and Olamide add even more flavor to a song laced with influence from the islands. I like what this song embodies, showing more crossover of hip-hop into the island music culture. The rise of Afrobeats and resurgence of dancehall is real. Hip-hop fans may greet this with the same disdain as Drake’s dabbles in outside influence but the potential to crossover is huge. If Wale was searching for international success, “Fine Girl” is a winning lottery ticket.
11. "Heaven On Earth" (ft. Chris Brown)
I’m feeling the fatigue a bit. The album has been quite the roller coaster, there’s no telling the twist it will take next. Oh! I like this. I usually don’t like anything with Chris Brown but my soul isn’t rejecting this record. Drums are swinging, Wale and Chris are playing off each other like tag team champions. WOW! THIS HOOK! THIS IS A GOOD HOOK! I know radio isn’t what it used to be, but this should be a HUGE radio hit. A golden Chris Brown hook, a heartfelt Wale, and the overall feeling just screams chart-topper. The female Wale fans are being catered to, this song is going to have so many doe-eyed vixens staring in the camera on Snapchat. I love the arrangement, such a soulful song. When was the last time Chris had a hit? Wale already has songs with Miguel, Jeremih and Usher; he was overdue for an undeniable hit with Brown. Just wait for this one to soar, it’s way too perfect not to take over the world of rhythm and blues.
12. "My PYT"
Full disclosure: I still hate this song. I hate it like you hate cold fries at McDonalds, like getting a flat tire on the way to prom, like oversleeping the day of a big test―the hate is real but despite how little I enjoy this song, it is so damn catchy. I’ll find myself snapping my fingers, grooving my shoulders, and mouthing the words. Even if I know this song is far from Wale’s best, it plays the role of a hit record. He’ll be able to perform this until my children have gray hairs and they aren’t born yet. I don’t have to like every song but I understand the purpose, and “My PYT” accomplishes its purpose. Undeniable hit. Thank you, Michael.
Based on the singing, this is another one for the ladies. It’s rather smooth. Wow, he’s going all the way there. Some rappers simply harmonize, this is Wale really working to hit the notes. He’s sprinkling the spoken word as the marshmallow on top of this sundae. It isn’t a Wale album without some poetic justice. Surprised we haven’t gotten a book of poetry. It’s a nice groove. I can’t get 100% behind the vocal performance but this is going to be another one for the women who adore the singing and songwriting. This won’t be the one I return to much, but around women it wouldn’t surprise me if this would be the one played the most.
14. "Smile" (ft. Phil Adé & Zyla Moon)
The way the drums come in almost slapped my mustache off. Closing song, not surprised he came in singing. It’s a bit grating. I wish he would’ve let a singer with a bit more soul start this one off. Okay! We getting Trump bars from Wale. Man, after an album of hearing his variation of singing trap execution, hearing a straightforward rap verse is very refreshing. This falls into the realm of the vintage, more expected bar kicker than the melodic hit maker. Just like Joey, Wale went with a warm sonic palette for his most politically driven song yet. America will be getting bars all summa seventeen. I like this hook, the writing is there but, again, I wish another singer would have laid down the vocals. Rapping Wale is the best Wale and he should be appreciated. Phil Adé! Hopefully we get his album this year. Good verse. I think all Wale's singing hooks grow on you by the song's end. Each subsequent listen, it just sounds a bit better. The sound of a baby, likely his newborn. Got her first album feature before learning to speak, beautiful.
My initial takeaway after finishing the album is how Wale has adjusted to the playlist format. SHINE explores without the worry of cohesion, jumping from sound to sound and from style to style as if it’s capturing all of the different elements of today. The album begins with soul, takes the route of trap, dabbles in international waters, and pivots in different arenas of rap and R&B. An album overflowing with ideas, similar to Drake’s approach with More Life―I see SHINE in the same light as a project made to take over playlists.
Wale is an album artist, one of his most admirable skills is the ability to construct projects from beginning to end. We’re used to seeing him operate around a theme, with each song as pieces of a larger puzzle; snapshots to complete a bigger picture. SHINE doesn’t attempt to build a world viewed from afar, it’s an album where each song is meant to be explored as a single entity. The Album About Nothing has a similar structure, but the songs are far more cohesive and stitched together by the Jerry skits.
The problem with SHINE is that upon first listen, it doesn’t sound like a Wale album. There’s a box I’ve created for him, an idea of what Wale should sound like, and this isn’t it. There are moments of nostalgia, where the Wale of yesteryear can be heard, but most of the music is Wale’s twist to styles made famous by other names. Again, this is an attribute seen, most recently, on Kanye’s The Life of Pablo, Kendrick’s DAMN. and Drake’s More Life―building upon popular soundscapes with the artist mixing in what makes them special.
It isn't difficult to identify which songs hit the mark and at least half of this album will be scattered across playlists on Apple Music, Tidal and Spotify. The album isn’t dead but crafting single-driven albums is becoming more and more prominent. Wale is just one more artist trying his hand to push this change forward. This isn't my favorite Wale album, it's far from his best lyrical effort, but the music touches on vibes in a way he hasn't accomplished before. I could do without some of the singing, but this is where rap happens to be and Wale is entering this space fearlessly.
The fifth studio album is a landmark release, a testimony of endurance and longevity in an industry where the expectancy of life lowers with each passing season. An artist's hottest summer could become their coldest winter in just a few years—from being in the spotlight to slipping into the abyss. Creating noteworthy art is hard enough, maintaining a presence in the mainstream is a completely different battle to fight. To be immersed in hip-hop is to know of the plethora of artists who never make it to their debut, all the creatives who fail to get their sophomore effort off the shelf, and all the stars whose light becomes dim by the time they release their third. To reach your fifth and still have a stake in the moment means you saw many come and go; you witnessed the sound and guard change, and yet, you’re still here. Wale is still here, and SHINE is his album of celebration. The music is far more fun, easier on the ears, and attempts to throw the kind of party that has a song for every kind of listener.
SHINE is an album of the moment that celebrates a career that has outlasted years of highs and lows. It's the celebration for a man who is still shining.
By Yoh, aka Scarface Yohzay Gotti, aka @Yoh31