Wale Resets the Clock With 'Folarin' Mixtape

Here's the long-standing perception of D.C. hip hop: Rappers who aren’t in the spotlight tend to hate on the ones getting attention. As a result, those poised to break out of the nation’s capital never really get the city’s full support. Instead, they’re nitpicked for “not being D.C. enough” or the music doesn’t incorporate the homegrown sound — go-go — the way it should. Wale's familiar with this. His first mainstream single “Chillin’” shouted out D.C. and its surrounding counties, but was ultimately chastised for its Lady Gaga feature and watery pop sound. His second single, “Pretty Girls,” was an evocative nod to go-go music, but Wale came under fire for choosing mostly light-skinned women for the video.

Still, Wale was poised to put the nation’s capital on the rap map and solidify it as the next go-to place for underground hip-hop. Sure, the city had a handful of MCs with star potential, but Wale was thought to have it all: impressive wordplay, spins on local radio, and a cosign from British tastemaker/producer Mark Ronson, who signed the rapper to his Allido record label in 2007. The following year, Wale’s Seinfeld-themed Mixtape About Nothing and 2009’s Back to the Feature heightened anticipation for his forthcoming major label debut Attention Deficit, which found him sharing space with everyone from Jazmine Sullivan and Rihanna, to rappers Gucci Mane and Bun B.

Wale’s success was supposed to open the floodgates for record execs to come looking for other great D.C. rappers to sign. But when Deficit tanked, Wale’s attitude tanked along with it. On his subsequent mixtape, More About Nothing, he tried to explain the album’s flop: “My shit was submarine-like, under-shipped/ Look at what I’m up against, scrutiny, criticism, everybody judgin’ off a single I ain’t even pick.” Fair enough.

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So maybe that explains Wale’s personality shift for Ambition, his 2011 album and first release as a member of Rick Ross’ boutique Maybach Music Group. While Attention Deficit sought to pacify wide swaths of fans, Ambition played like the glossy ramblings of a man struggling to comprehend his newfound fame. On it, Wale was more self-congratulatory than usual and naysayers were shrugged off as “haters.” It’s a motif that would characterize his online persona, whether he engaged in Twitter fights with Amanda Diva or Osama bin Laden’s former mistress. That made Wale tough to cheer for, although you could understand his cantankerous approach. Folks wrote him off after the Deficit debacle; aligned with the likes of Rick Ross, he wanted to rub it in our faces a little.

On Folarin, Wale's late-2012 mixtape, he finally sounds comfortable in his skin. On its 20 songs, he shows flashes of his former self: the guy who could breeze through double entendres so quickly that you needed a few playbacks to absorb the meaning. And Wale’s finally achieved the “ambition” he sought previously, as this mixtape boasts some big names for a free project: Trinidad James infuses “Flat Out” with his polarizing blend of ratchet rap; Scarface helps Wale recall better days on “Limitless.” He’s discussing topics that hold weight, like his public school upbringing and the gritty side of D.C. He shouts out Bowie State University and Georgetown. Elsewhere on Folarin, Wale acknowledges his inadequate recent output, atoning for it with a heavier soundtrack that better accentuates his potential. Here, the production — courtesy of Nottz, Diplo and Jake One — is rooted in dusty soul and canned drums, which gives the mixtape a somewhat nostalgic feel. “I know I got that flow back, n*gga,” he grumbles at the top of “Chun Li.” On “Fa We We Freestyle”: “I know I use the ‘n’ word too much, and the ‘b’ word too much, I know it seem like I’m lunchin’.” Unlike the self-indulgent Ambition, this mixtape looks outward.

Perhaps we should’ve seen this coming, though. Released in November, the track “Freedom of Speech” celebrated President Barack Obama’s re-election and addressed gentrification and shady politics. Above all, it represented a slight return to form for the Nigerian-American MC who, for the first time since signing with Maybach, confidently toes the line between his backpacking roots and hedonistic traits. With Folarin, he isn’t so fixated on the hate he receives; at last, he’s finally ignoring it.

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