Hip-hop is obsessed with ranking. It's the reason fans will debate arbitrary lists like, “Top 5: Dead or Alive” or the XXL Freshman to death, even though they don't have any real meaning beyond the list itself. Rappers can't be so easily defined by numbers, and it leaves everyone wondering just what criteria makes someone a Top 10 anything. But the rap ranking debate is still impossible to ignore, so before we go any further, let's try to find some common ground.
For the purposes of this article, I'm considering four overarching factors:
- Commercial success
- Critical acclaim
- Cultural impact
- “It” factor
These four criteria are meant to weed out any outliers. Separately they're incomplete, but together they balance each other out. For example, Iggy Azalea had the biggest commercial success of 2014 with “Fancy.” However, her overall scores in critical acclaim and “it” factor would be far lower. When you consider every factor, she's barely a third-tier artist, at best. Also, since this is about where these artists are right now, I'm only considering the last decade of output. So Jay can be reviewed on MCHG, but not Reasonable Doubt.
So here’s an example (*albeit incomplete and very debatable) of the current status.
1st Tier: Drake, Kanye West, Jay-Z, Lil Wayne, Eminem
2nd Tier: Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole, Nicki Minaj, A$AP Rocky
3rd Tier: Schoolboy Q, A$AP Ferg, Childish Gambino, Pusha T, Big Sean, Future, Wiz Khalifa
4th Tier: Young Thug, Rich Homie Quan, Travis Scott, French Montana
Just coming up with that bare-bones outline was incredibly hard, and those are only a handful of names. In fact, thinking over that tier system made me see just how many rappers, don’t easily fit into this categorization, most prominently Wale.
In a lot of ways Wale is a musical anomaly. Almost every critic or rap fan can attest to counting the DMV rapper out at least once in his career. Between commercial flops, label drama and critical missteps, Wale has had a long and arduous road to success.
Maybe that's why Wale has railed against the system in recent interviews with Hot 97 and The Breakfast Club? On numerous occasions, Wale has lashed out at media outlets for one central reason…he isn’t considered the best. From threatening Complex writers to documented publicized spats, Wale desperately wants to be accepted within the greater rap pantheon. Is he right? Should he be? Compared to his peers where does Wale rank? Great question, I'm glad I asked it.
The strongest argument that anyone could present for Wale being considered a first or second tier artist is his commercial performance. Attention Deficit has sold 169K in the U.S., Ambition is at 500K, and The Gifted is at 323K. Besides his debut, most of Wale’s albums have sold very well considering the current climate in the music industry. Also, Ambition sold 164K in its first week and debuted at number 2 in the country, while The Gifted sold 158k in its first week and debuted number 1. So Wale can make a rather valid argument that he’s a forced to be reckoned with sales wise.
Wale’s also had a few hits under his belt, specifically “Lotus Flower Bomb” and “Bad.” To date “Lotus Flower Bomb” has sold 620,000 copies while “Bad” went platinum. Wale is nowhere near the top when it comes to commercial performance, but he also isn’t at the bottom. All things considered Wale could safely be put on the higher end of the 3rd Tier when it comes to sales numbers, along with Gambino, ScHoolboy Q and Big Sean. He’s never had a mega-hit, but he can easily lay up a nice crossover R&B/Hip-hop record.
As far as Wale’s critical success goes, its a mixed bag. If Metacritic - a website that aggregates reviews into an overall score - is any indication Wale isn’t doing horrible when it comes to critical consensus. However, his performance isn’t stellar when compared to similar competitors. Overall, Wale has a career score of 70, while Drake has a 77, J.Cole has a 73, and Kendrick has a 83. Also interesting to note is the fact that Wale’s albums on a critical level have been on a downward trajectory: Attention Deficit (77), Ambition (69) and The Gifted (65). It seems the more commercially successful Wale becomes, the harsher critics grade him.
Even Pitchfork, perhaps the most controversial, divisive, and fickle reviewers on the web have increasingly turned on the once hipster-adored rapper. They went from giving Wale an 8.4 for The Mixtape About Nothing to a 5.1 for The Gifted.
Early in his career Wale was an indie darling. He waxed philosophical over Seinfeld samples, rapped over electronic beats, dropped obscure sports references and was a heavy sneakerhead. So it makes sense that critics have cooled on him since the Rick Ross and MMG signing. While the partnership undoubtedly saved his career, it also seemed forced. The Meek Mill/Wale beef only adds credence to this belief, and demonstrates that Wale might have traded a little bit of his creative soul to become commercially viable, a story line critics have been quick to jump on.
Cultural impact is an elusive term and thus hard to define. It’s like porn, you know it when you see it. Something like Kendrick’s GKMC has undoubtedly impacted the culture. How many hip-hop albums from young artists after Good Kid have tried to tell a cohesive story or force introspection? Impact can also be viewed as something negative (i.e. The Migos flow) or divisive (i.e. Yeezus).
In that vein, has Wale ever impacted hip-hop culture in a large and overarching way?
The answer is a little hard to pinpoint. Early in his career Wale was definitely doing something different. The Mixtape About Nothing was a truly innovative and risky endeavor when Wale dropped it in 2008. Who else could stretch the theme of Seinfeld over the course of a whole project or get Julia Louis-Dreyfus (Elaine Benes) to feature on a mixtape cut? Even Wale rapping over Justice’s electronic tour-de-force “D.A.N.C.E.” was groundbreaking in 2007.
However, recent years haven’t been as kind to the DMV native. Ambition and The Gifted were both solid efforts, but were overshadowed culturally by bigger rap releases. Even songs like “Lotus Flower Bomb” and “Bad” are mostly recognized for their hooks by Miguel and Tiara Thomas. That doesn’t mean Wale is a bad rapper, he just doesn’t shake up the game in the same way as a 1st or 2nd Tier artist like Jay or Drake.
Another problem is that Wale seems to pine for recognition. What other rapper yells, “I swear to God I’ll come to that office and start knocking n****s the fuck out,” at Complex staff for being left off their “50 Best Albums of 2013,” list?
"At this point, you know it’s got to be personal. You telling me its not personal. It’s like a bold face lie. To be omitted from every type of list that y'all do or be at the bottom of it or every type of way that y’all can omit me, ya will.”
And this is Wale’s ultimate flaw. He cares too much. No one wants to cheer for the rapper who is dying for recognition so badly. At the end of the day music speaks for itself, and fans will gravitate to what they love regardless of a Complex list.
Last, but not least…the “It” factor. To even get on the pyramid a rapper has to have something that makes them different from the pack, some instantly recognizable quality that they own. Drake can sing (sort of). Kanye has that crazy genius thing going on. Lil Wayne sounds like a voodoo martian.
So what is Wale’s “It” factor?
The first time I realized Wale had something worthwhile to say was on “The Kramer,” off The Mixtape About Nothing. Race is inherently a touchy subject. So it makes it even more impressive when an artist can communicate the trials and tribulations of race relations in a believable and multifaceted way. On “The Kramer” Wale was in rare form. When Wale spit, “Yeah, and make sure everything you say/Can’t be held against you in any kind of way/And any connotation is viewed many ways/Cause under every nigga, there’s a little bit of Kramer,” it was a truly poignant moment.
“The Kramer” talks about everything from the N-word, to race and self-hatred, and does it all without seeming preachy or condemning one particular group. For a kid growing up in a suburbs and dealing with issues of race and class, Wale’s song spoke volumes. It made me think about race in a different way, especially in the wake of the Kramer debacle at the Laugh Factory.
Wale has a way of making thoughtful songs and presenting them in an easily digestible way. Whether it be "Shades" or “Black Heroes,” Wale can make thought provoking music with a bounce. In that way Wale has made a lane for himself when it comes to creating engaging music that challenges the listener. Was this lane damaged by Wale’s affiliation with MMG? Its hard to say. Wale is still making songs in this style, but in the consumer’s mind the glitz and glamour of the MMG brand in tarnished this more “conscious” Folarin.
With all that being said, I feel safe placing Wale on the third tier.
He’s still finding his sound and place within hip-hop. He has room to grow, but is talented and one of the more resilient emcees. He weathered multiple storms that sought to take him off of the map and came out the other side stronger. Wale’s next release, The Album About Nothing, has the chance to push him up to the second tier, especially if it's embraced by the critics. If his collaboration with Seinfeld performs both commercially and critically, it might point towards a new day for the DMV rapper.
But what do you think? Where would you put Wale on the hip-hop pyramid? Because at their best, debates and rankings like this aren't really about the rankings, they're about taking the time to really think through an artists's career. Think/debate away...
[By Charles Holmes. He writes things. This is his Twitter.]