“I feel like it's going to give me the best opportunity to win and to win for multiple years, and not only just to win in the regular season or just to win five games in a row or three games in a row. I want to be able to win championships.” —LeBron James
I. Free Agency
LeBron James is the current face of Wale’s Twitter avatar. The photo is an image associated with a moment in NBA history that will forever be attached to LeBron’s legacy―"The Decision" to leave his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers in pursuit of multiple NBA championships alongside Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh as a member of the Miami Heat.
Interscope Records released a young Wale from his first record deal eight years ago. “Getting dropped from a label is only fun for people who can’t feel it,” he told Billboard in 2015, a quote that comes to mind each time an artist and their label suddenly separate. Similar to losing a job, an artist deals with varying degrees of uncertainty after parting ways with a major benefactor like a record label. Grinding to get a deal is a different kind of stress compared to losing one and needing to find another.
For the first time since being dropped from Interscope and before signing with Rick Ross' MMG imprint in a joint deal with Atlantic Records, Wale is a free agent. And new labels are already calling. The picture of LeBron is a nod to the big decision he's about to make.
“Left Atlantic, ‘bout a minute later, every record label try and scout me,” the DC veteran raps on his latest loosie, “Staying Power.” The eloquent, bravado-laced bars are a treat for anyone craving thoughtful, uninterrupted lyricism for three strong minutes, even more so for those patiently awaiting new music from Wale.
II. Staying Power
One of the biggest boasts an artist can make is to brag about longevity, a difficult feat for any artist to accomplish in this attention-starved economy. “Staying Power” is a testimony to survival despite a career of countless trials and setbacks.
The record's quality brings back memories of The Mixtape About Nothing, a classic freebie born the same year of Wale's release from Interscope. Arguably, home to his best material. Coincidence? I think not. Similar to how Kanye is at his best when facing off against adversaries, the best Wale raps are birthed when the biggest chip is resting on his shoulder.
“Staying Power” joins the graceful anti-Valentine anthem “All-Star Break Up” as Wale’s second indie release of 2018, a double feature that has graced fans with poetic musing and quote-worthy bars.
With complete creative control, Wale delivered, in the span of one month, two well-received singles. I know the phone is ringing, but does Wale need to pick up? Does Wale need a record label in 2018?
III. Deal or No Deal
Most artists need a label to help with exposure and reach, but Wale is long past the point of fan-building. Despite disappointing album sales and an unwillingness to play nice with the media, Wale has a strong fan base of diehards who arrive in hordes to see him live, buy merch, and stream his latest music.
A label can assist an artist with radio spins and digital service provider playlist placements, but that only matters if the artist's goal is to chart on Billboard and earn certifications from the RIAA.
I believe Wale does. He’s a competitor. But there is more than one way to win the music industry equivalent of a championship. A service like EMPIRE, a digital distribution company and record label headquartered in San Francisco, could assist with radio adds and playlist positioning. The key to independent success is filling the void of label services with reputable replacements. Build the company you need from the ground up.
Of course, the biggest factor when an artist transitions from a major record label to independence is money. How much does an artist need to sustain a career without the label's piggy bank? When it is your money being invested, every dime counts.
Big K.R.I.T. hasn't publicly disclosed how much it cost him to create his acclaimed 2017 double-album 4eva Is a Mighty Long Time, his first release since asking Def Jam for his freedom in 2016. Unlike Wale, though, K.R.I.T. hasn’t ever had a major presence on radio, nor has he been a commercially successful singles artist. Directing his energy into making the music that hardcore fans were thirsting for instead of catering to the world’s taste wasn't a major pivot for K.R.I.T. In Wale's case, especially considering the radio-influenced sound of his last LP, SHINE, it would be a huge change in direction.
SHINE put on display the broad, creative palette Wale is able to draw from, but the body of work was more akin to a playlist project like More Life or Black Panther The Album. Songs like the sun-baked “My Love,” the fun-filled “Fashion Week,” and the infectious “Fine Girl” all should’ve been bigger in today's playlist climate. Despite their potential, each song fell short of breaking through the noise. In the hands of a label like, say, RCA―whose GRAMMY-nominated acts GoldLink, SZA, Khalid have all seen tremendous success with melodic singles―the SHINE album might've been handled differently.
This is the crossroads Wale has reached―musically shoot for the stars with the majors for the next big record, or find an exclusive island for a chosen few and live la vida indie.
An interesting parallel to Wale's current position is the career of T.I. Both artists were dropped from their first label home after generating poor album sales―most fans forget T.I. released 2001's I'm Serious on Arista―both bounced back bigger than ever and both are known for crafting anthems and strong R&B crossovers.
T.I., once in the same position that Wale currently finds himself in, left Atlantic Records after nine years and seven albums released. 2014's Paperwork was T.I.'s first and only release with Columbia Records. The Southern king then chose to release 2015's Da' Nic EP through EMPIRE and the politically charged Us or Else EP underneath Roc Nation’s ceiling. This late in his career, T.I. isn't moving albums like he once did, but it's hard to imagine the numbers are stressing the king much. He’s free of all label obligations, making the music of his choice, and makes a decent amount of capital from streams—presumably without having to give up his master rights.
V. The Decision
If Wale is hellbent on signing, where should he go?
I can’t imagine Wale signing with Dreamville, their artist roster is currently overflowing, but if he returns to Interscope the door opens for a collaboration album with J. Cole. Did I mention the two were recently spotted in the studio?
Pusha T has been signing nothing but young blood to G.O.O.D. Music over the past 24 months, but his relationship with Ross and Wale could very well lead to a seasoned creative being added to the ranks. “The Summer League” shouldn’t be the only song Ye has with Folarin.
RCA would be a great fit for all the obvious reasons—my inner A&R believes the excellent chemistry he has with SZA should be furthered explored—but Wale's perfect match would be underneath No I.D.’s wing at Capitol Music Group. A soul sample-driven Wale album in the same vein as 4:44 seems too obvious to ignore.
Why artists should maintain their independence has been one of the biggest conversations in hip-hop over the last few years. The dastardly deeds labels continue to pull are being exposed daily, and the internet has increased the likelihood an artist can be label-free and still able to succeed. It’s an idea that’s easy to promote, but living the life is a different beast.
Only the artist knows the stress and strain that comes with creating on both sides of the fence. At this stage of his career, Wale has plenty left to say and there’s an audience who wants to hear it. No matter what he decides to do, I’m certain he’ll continue to make a living playing with words and providing the soundtrack for our summers and winters. He's a survivalist in a business that devours without remorse―he has more lives than the average artist, and he's unlikely to stop until he gets that ring.
I look forward to the big announcement, and I'm pretty sure LeBron will be watching.
By Yoh, aka YohLivesMatter, aka @Yoh31