Paradise Rock Club
Oct. 31, 2011
I’ve been meaning to see Wale for a long time. As an immensely talented, aspiring rapper from the D.C. area myself, it means a lot to see a native from the tri-county blow up the way that Wale has. Now, our average young, rapless MIT reader should understand: for such a big city, D.C. is quite a different beast than a place like New York or Los Angeles. Sure there’s still plenty of hood projects, drug corners, crime and poverty to talk about. But on a day-to-day basis, people worry more about the temperature of their Chinese food and lines at the DMV than getting a bullet in the head or their mild but burgeoning crack addictions. After all, D.C. is the nation’s capital, surrounded by modest but serene suburbia on all sides. The most I’ve ever feared for my life in my 12 years of residency was the summer I interned at the Naval Research Lab and had to take a metrobus through Anacostia — I did crossword puzzles.
Wale understands this. His mixtapes are themed after “Seinfeld, Back to the Future” — one is even called Live from the DMV. His subject matter is generally trite (e.g., relationships, making it big, go-go music), but his lyrics are astoundingly clever. Just listen to “Ambitious Girl” and try to keep your head up while swimming in his puns. But regardless of what flak he’s gotten for his failed album with Interscope Records, and his new partnership with Maybach Music Group (MMG), he remains an interesting and alternative figure in the hip-hop community. So when he returned to Boston on Oct. 31 for Karmaloop Presents: Wal-O-Ween, I had to be there.
Paradise Rock Club is a markedly weird place to throw a rap concert. As far as music is concerned, PRC typically brings in a good host of indie hipster fare, but they also have a history of switching it up from time to time with alternative hip-hop groups like Jedi mind tricks, Lupe Fiasco, or Atmosphere. Wale, or at least, the MMG, Rick Ross-led version of Wale, doesn’t really fit in either category (Rick Ross’s beard has a better chance of fitting into the latter crowd). So: ready for the most shocking thing of the night? White people.
There were a lot of them. Mostly in baggy T-shirts and fitted caps with a big red “B” on the front. But they were there, side by side with pretty much everyone else you could imagine. Honestly, I was amused, but more than that I was excited. For a crowd this diverse to show up at pretty much the high end of the Richter scale of ghetto rap concerts, it really highlighted the changing tides of music and social media. Race and area codes are being phased out of the important parts of music fanbases, replaced by YouTube views and retweets. It’s a good thing.
Wale came out at about 11:30 p.m., a bit late for an opening act, but the party came with him. He wore a denim jacket, a blank white tee, and khakis. At certain points of the night he had on various combinations of these articles of clothing (including wearing nothing but the aforementioned pants). One of the unique things about Wale is that he prefers to have the majority of his extended family performing on stage with him, bouncing lazily to the music and giving high fives to each other and lucky sections of the audience. Not the biggest fan of it myself, but as a headliner, a good choice if you’re ever targeted by an easily distracted sniper.
Wale was here to promote Ambition, his official record with MMG. He’s a great crowd-pleaser — spending his time beforehand, and even during the concert, signing autographs, tossing swag, giving high fives and dancing with the crowd. The concert itself was heavy on the premiere of Ambition, but not without some of his old hits. Starting the show with a loud, thumping rendition of “Bait,” Wale exclaims, “Who’s on my line/I’m blowing up these bitches calling me/I’ll snatch your girl if your tripping/She’s on my line like I’m fishing.” Moving from the hyped up intro, he transitioned into “Lotus Flower Bomb,” his diamond-encrusted love song with an enigmatic reference to an old Sandra Bullock film: “Flower bomb/can I blow up on your mind/This is not no Sandra Bull, but you’re Potion #9.” Afterward, he rapped on “Chillin,” and the old crowd favorite, “Nike Boots.”
The crowd loved him. I didn’t.
The Wale I fell in love with is insecure. His best songs are deeply whimsical — “90210,” about a girl with an eating disorder. “Shades,” about his struggles to validate himself as a dark-skinned black man, even among lighter-skinned black people. And possibly the greatest, most concise song about a breakup, aptly titled “Break Up Song.” Just listen to verse two:
Can we stay broken up?
And all these pages close em up
I hope we both do learn from this
So my next don’t don’t gotta be so rough
Gotta get better with time
Relationships should never rewind
Better leave it all behind
Guess that means you can never be mine
Well ummm there’s a but
Without your love it’s cold as fuck
Life is a movie we both say cut
But most the time darling the sequel
What Wale isn’t, and shouldn’t be, is a swag-tossing, Nike boots-wearing record-label pawn, the way he presented himself that night. As he danced and strode across the stage, you could almost see the strings from his joints, leading up into the rafters, controlled by a smug Rick Ross holding popsicle sticks. I wanted to see more of the old Wale, not just in himself, but in hip-hop in general.
Hip hop production and recording has become cheaper than ever, with the improvements in cheap DJing and production software. In turn there has been a dramatic increase in new talent cropping from YouTube; yet the rhymes sound as stale and mysogynistic as ever. If only we could all sit down in a conference room and tell everyone that, by golly, there are more things to talk about than how much cash you can stash in your pants pockets before they fall down or how many women you can keep on hold at the same time, hip-hop could become appreciated more outside of clubs and Cadillac Escalades. But as popular as Wale’s Ambition — produced by MMG — is, it’s pointed sadly in the wrong direction.