"And I know he so bitter he can't see his own blessings / Goddamn, nigga, you too blind to see you got fans, nigga" - J. Cole
Empty. The entire venue was empty. An hour before doors opened, I looked out from the stage and I didn't see a single soul where the crowd would be. In all my days of attending shows at the Tabernacle, this was the first time I stood where the artists stand. It was the first time I saw the former Baptist Church in its full, empty glory. Over 3,000 people would enter these halls to hear pastors preach in the 1950s; now it's musicians who use the venue to reach their congregations.
Wale was tonight’s pastor, reading from the book of SHINE—the beginning of his first tour since 2015's short promo run for The Album About Nothing. The ache of anxiety was one I couldn’t shake as I wondered how many from the Atlanta parish would arrive to hear the word.
Numbers are how we trace importance, popularity and relevance when it comes to music. Album sales, Instagram followers, Twitter interactions―a plethora of numbers are utilized to gauge where an artist is at in his or her career. Wale’s first-week album sales have been a topic of conversation since last Friday when it was reported he only moved 25,000 album equivalent units—the lowest first week of his career.
The old Wale would have reacted poorly to the album "flopping," lashing out on Twitter at anyone who invaded his timeline. There was no eruption this time; the volcano didn’t spew lava of outrage but was rather calm and quiet. Wale continued to preach what he has preached since the beginning of SHINE's rollout―that his focus was solely on the fans. Instead of focusing on who didn’t support the album, he would hone in on those who did. You can call this copping out, avoiding the reality of flopping, or a mature artist more comfortable with real bodies and not numbers on a computer screen.
How many eyes would be staring back at him when he walked out onto this stage? The odds weren’t in his favor, not because of promotion or album sales but what was happening in Atlanta on his arrival day.
Across town at the Lakewood Amphitheatre, Future Hendrix was set to grace a stage. Young Thug was also on the bill to perform, the hometown return of two of Atlanta’s most beloved artists. With all the hype around “Mask Off” and Future’s back-to-back album releases, there was enough momentum to bring the entire city out. Meanwhile, across the street—literally across from Tabernacle—the Shaky Beats Music Festival was being held in Centennial Olympic Park. The EDM festival brought bigger names to headline their second annual event, including The Chainsmokers, GRiZ and Flosstradamus.
Wale was back on the road, presenting a new album with new music, and his first date happened to be wedged between two monstrous events. Wale's been an underdog in the music industry his entire career, and his tour kickoff at the Tabernacle was no different. I stood backstage most of the night, handling a variety of responsibilities as a fill-in tour manager for Kelechi, a DJBooth Top Prospect who was set to open the show.
I didn’t return to the public area until after Phil Adé and Kent Jones performed, but when I did, the entire venue was packed. The fans had arrived, chanting Wale's name, anxiously awaiting the headlining act to appear. Applause and screams erupted in the church when he stood where I had stood, the latest preacher to reach the pulpit.
You don’t realize how massive and golden Wale's discography is until you’re watching him perform hit after hit. I thought there would be crickets as he performed “Chillin,” the M.I.A.-sampled, Lady Gaga-assisted single from Attention Deficit, but the noise level was the same as SHINE's “Scarface Rozay Gotti.” There was a moment when Wale, seemingly overwhelmed, had to briefly stop performing in order to acknowledge how impressed he was with the call-and-response from the audience. They knew the words—all the words. This is an artist who has never immediately toured new material; Wale built a catalog that he could lean on, the throwback records would always work, but the new album was untested. Coming off of his disappointing first-week sales, the reaction to his newest records was reassuring. You could see it in his excitement, an artist who knew, based on the reaction of his fans, that the new music was going to work. What else mattered, if every stop on this tour had the same reception?
A live band brought records like “Fashion Week,” “Mathematics,” “Shine Season,” “Fish n Grits” “CC White,” “My Love” and “Fine Girl” to a level that goes beyond a playlist favorite. When a commercial album with radio appeal doesn’t take over radio immediately, you see the promise and prowess of its tracks during a live show. The band, Wale and the background dancers delivered the kind of performance that kept the crowd going nonstop. I can’t remember the last time I saw a breakdancer spinning on their heads, flipping, dabbing and hittin' dem folks at a rap show. While Wale's new material slowly raised the roof off the venue, of course, his hits―”Pretty Girls,” “That Way,” "Lotus Flower Bomb,” “Bad,” “The Matrimony,” “Diced Pineapples” and “No Hands”―are what took it off completely. Performing “No Hands” in Atlanta almost torched the entire church to the ground.
Wale’s energy is what made the night. You would’ve thought he sold 500k first week copies of SHINE based on his performance, which ran 45 minutes longer than expected (it was almost a two-hour show). Kelechi compared his stage presence to Rocky the fictional boxer; Wale was an artist who always had a little more to give just when you thought he was on the ropes. He told Atlanta he was giving them 400% and you could see it, a passion that couldn’t be exhausted. I expected some his energy to wane, the show was long, but the crowd only cheered harder, giving back every ounce of energy they received.
I’ve watched Wale perform five times in five different venues, but I didn’t see him deliver his true gospel until that night at the Tabernacle. Surrounded by fans—true fans—he gave the performance of his career.
The show was better than good. Kelechi and I texted back and forth the entire time how impressed we were. Album sales and internet perception might lead people to believe that Wale is washed, but on the night of May the 5th, 2017, it was obvious how much people love Wale. There was no yelling about album sales, only the grace of an artist who appreciated all these people showing up. I don't know if he knew about Future or the festival, but he seemed genuine about making this tour about those who have supported him the most. During his second encore, depleted of energy, he asked the crowd what they wanted to hear. Against the ropes but still going, with only enough energy for another punch or two.
I stayed an hour after the show, watching Hannibal Buress play skee ball and the collective of people that clamored for attention from the headliner, before I decided to leave, a six-hour drive staring me down. Even if it was only for a day, I started to empathize with artists who spend their life on the road. Wale still had to do meet-and-greets with fans, his night was far from over. Walking outside, I was surprised by the brisk, cold wind of winter. 40 degrees in Atlanta on a May night was like seeing snow in Hawaii. My body shivered.
I stood outside with Kelechi for another 20 minutes discussing plans for the next day, and couldn’t help but notice two girls who stayed behind waiting for Wale. It was two hours after the show ended, and the temperature was freezing, but these young women remained, holding a sign that was dedicated to getting his attention. I couldn’t simply allow them to stand in the cold knowing he could potentially be another hour due to the meet-and-greet line. I walked over and politely explained to her what was happening. While she shivered, the young woman holding the sign began to cry and muttered, “I will stand out here all night. I will be here until the sunrise to tell him how much his music means to me.”
I wasn’t ready for that. It felt like something out of a movie.
While she wiped away the tears streaming down her face, her friend relayed what happened―this was her very first concert. Wale was her favorite artist and they won the tickets on campus at Georgia State. She made a sign hoping for a little acknowledgment but mostly just to express how much she cared. They left early so they could be in the front row, to be close as to Wale as possible. Atlanta traffic was terrible that day, there was so much happening in the city that it meant sitting bumper to bumper. Unfortunately, in their rush to get to the venue on time, they bumped into the back of another car. I don’t know the details of the accident but they were devastated, worried about police, the insurance exchange and all the time wasted by the incident. Then, once they arrived, they were told the sign wasn’t allowed inside and had to be thrown out. For a first concert experience, she was going through it. After thoroughly enjoying the show and reuniting with her sign, she was determined to meet the man who has impacted her life and, hopefully, take a picture together. But her phone was dead.
All I wanted to do was go home, but I couldn’t leave her without trying to make her dream come true. Together, we walked to my car to charge her phone and escape the cold. We sat there and shivered together as time ticked away. When an opportunity presented itself for me to sneak back inside the venue, Wale still had about 20 people left to meet and greet. It wasn't until 30 minutes later, once he was finished, that I was able to relay that there was someone special he had to meet.
The moment we stepped outside, voices from the bus yelled for him to come onboard. With the show spilling over and the immense number of meet-and-greet prospects, they were behind schedule. Two club appearances and a six-hour drive to North Carolina for the next tour stop ahead—another sold out show—were just on the horizon. Once Wale got on the bus, I didn’t expect him to come back out. He had no obligation to the two girls I met. Superman couldn’t save everyone and every artist isn’t able to give every fan a moment of their time. I understood this reality, but I loathed having to explain this to the two young ladies.
Unexpectedly, Wale emerged from the bus with two posters and a marker. He walked over to them, signed both posters and handed them over. The young woman began to cry. She had this whole story planned that never left her lips, only mustering, “Your music helped me through some rough times.” He smiled, hugged and took pictures with them. You could see in their eyes how much this meant, how every hour shivering in the cold was worth the few minutes they were able to spend with him.
J. Cole articulated on “False Prophets” how Wale needed to grow beyond the worry of status, acclaim and respect, and realize the blessing of having fans. I never saw the song as a diss. Cole was sharing what he saw in Wale—a man slipping into an abyss of worry that could force him to lose focus on what’s most important. Fans are important; the people who your music saves. Algorithms, Soundscan and social media followers are just numbers, but it’s the people who truly are there that matters. “A platform to make a classic rap song to change a nigga’s life,” rapped Cole. On this night, Wale and I both met a fan affected by his music.
This is someone who hasn’t toured in over two years, someone who hasn’t had this type of interaction with fans across the country. “We all need a reason to smile,” Wale raps on the final song on SHINE, and even though he gave an entire venue a reason to smile, the smile I won’t forget is the one I saw on a single girl's face. He didn’t just make her night, he gave her something she will never forget. A memory to cherish.
Wale is growing up. He has his daughter, his family and his fans. High sales or low sales, good or bad reviews, it's all relative. What now matters most is letting go of the weight that drags you down and cherishing the angels that lift you up. The venues aren’t empty. He is blind no more.
By Yoh, aka Everyday Yoh aka @Yoh31