I’ll never quite understand Wale’s career. On one hand, he’s an uber-talented artist that has enough hits to create a respectable greatest hits album just five LPs into his career. On the other, he is an artist that will constantly be compared to the peers in which he came up with; All of whom have arguably surpassed him in commercial success at this point. This is not to say the music is the problem. In fact, if there’s one thing that you can’t criticize Wale on, it’s the consistency and quality of his musical output. After a successful mixtape run, a somewhat false start of a debut album and subsequent resurgence after inking a deal with MMG, Wale was mentioned in the class of Drake, Big Sean and J Cole. So this past week as headlines surfaced with projections about Wale doing 20k first week on his new effort SHINE, it made me wonder how that could be possible while Drake and Cole do half a million first week in their sleep and Big Sean improves his sales with every new release, now close to hitting the 200k mark if his trajectory continues. You could blame the label, you could blame lack of promotion, you could blame Wale, but at the end of the day, placing blame doesn’t change the reality of the situation. Somewhere along the way Wale fell behind. Ironically, Wale’s hyper self-awareness of both his place in the game and how attentive he is to any and everything that is said about him have hindered him the most. He engages critics and criticism in general more than any of his contemporaries. While the likes of Cole and Drake may hear the negative rumblings surrounding them, they keep to themselves and respond through music. Wale is the opposite. It’s great that he seems more reachable than those other names, but far too often it makes the drama take precedence over the music, which is a shame. With SHINE, it was apparent that Wale was working on this. He was on record as saying this LP was all about positivity, the summertime vibe and just feeling good. He’s made music in this lane before, but never a full record.
Is this a style that Wale can pull off for an entire album? In short, sort of, yes. SHINE is best described as an enjoyable yet forgettable album. This year alone we’ve gotten albums that have stayed in rotation for months, so it’s hard not to hold Wale to that standard and to his own track record. He arguably has some of his most commercially viable records here, which makes the sales even more puzzling. ‘My Love’, the collaboration with Major Lazer, Duka Lipa and WizKid is an Afro Beats record that Wale sounds very comfortable on, but still comes off a nice little surprise. He gets extra points for the slight interpolation of ‘Bring Em Out’ towards the end of the song as well. With Lil Wayne riding shotgun, ‘Running Back’ is a bright spot too. The two have undeniable chemistry and Wale brings out the best in Wayne. Wale even tries his hand at Spanish on ‘Colombia Heights (Te Llamo)’. While it’s not an outright success, it’s always admirable to hear rappers crossover and attempt something out of their comfort zone.
Wale’s talent stretches much further than most give him credit for. He can transition from spoken word to double time rapping to crooning alongside an R&B artist without you even noticing how versatile his skillset is. Much of the spoken word and lyrical showcases are absent on SHINE. That’s less criticism and more observation as it’s clear that deep political statements and 64 bar verses are not what this album is about. The best showcase of all of his skills is ‘Scarface Rozay Gotti’ as he half sings a hook that weaves its way into your brain and then mixes it up with a variety of flows and cadences. ‘Gotti’ is one of only five songs where Wale flies solo here. ‘Mathematics’, which falls in the middle of the tracklist is another, and it feels out of place. Over a darker, grimy beat, Wale breaks up the atmosphere that he’s created in the first half. It’s not necessarily a sub-par track in its own right, but more so a puzzling inclusion within the sequencing of the album. Wale continues to show his versatility alongside G-Eazy on ‘Fashion Week’ and Travis Scott on ‘Fish N Grits’. On the former he trades verses over a bouncing beat and the latter he enters Travis Scott’s world and adapts his own style to it. They are some of the better songs on SHINE.
Where the album begins to falter is in its lack of standout moments. With every Wale release, you’ve always been able to count on at least 4-5 great tracks that would remain in rotation for many weeks-months throughout the year. Such is not the case with SHINE. There are some good records, but none that match the highs of any of the great tracks from The Album About Nothing. ‘My PYT’ was included simply because of its decent run on radio and its inclusion feels out of place and more like a label decision than a Wale one. Songs like ‘DNA’ and ‘Fine Girl’ also fall short as they sound like songs Wale has already done better before. There’s an immense amount of talent spread across the runtime of SHINE, but the summation lands somewhere between easy listening and disappointment.
In theory, SHINE should be THE Wale album. The moment where he finally puts all of the pieces together and reaches the potential we all know he’s capable of. It clearly didn’t work out that way. This is an album that set out to be a breezy summertime pleasure. An album that you could throw on at cookouts, on beach days, at parties, etc. While it wouldn’t sound out of place playing in any of these settings, it fails due to Wale’s lack of commitment to the theme. The music is fun, but fun isn’t familiar from Wale. It’s an album that’s begging him to completely let loose and make music without thinking about the critics. SHINE sounds like Wale is making music for everyone but himself, perhaps because our ears are being challenged. There’s bright spots littered throughout, but by attempting to please a larger crowd, the crowd largely turned their attention elsewhere. Wale’s been here before and he’s bounced back. He’ll bounce back again. He always does. Wale’s relentless aspiration to be the best is something that seems like will never escape him. It’s admirable, but you have to wonder if he’ll ever reach the heights that allow him to rest easy at night.
Repeatable: ‘My Love’, ‘Fashion Week’, ‘Scarface Rozay Gotti’, ‘Fish N Grits’
Skippable: ‘Mathematics’, ‘My PYT’
By Scott Evans