If you went to the 2008 Rock the Bells festival at Shoreline Amphitheatre in Mountain View, then you probably missed Wale Folarin. Barely an hour into the 12-hour-plus event, he was on the main stage, rocking back and forth in a half-crouch, spitting rhymes from his viral hit "W.A.L.E.D.A.N.C.E." to an arena that was one-quarter full.
Wale may be a padwan among hip-hop's big dogs, but many of the genre's tastemakers and fans call him a rising star. Though he has yet to release an official album, Wale has already graced the covers of several magazines. His most recent mixtape, The Mixtape About Nothing, landed on major 2008 year-end lists, including Pitchfork's. Earlier in the year, the Roots, who have a history of recruiting hot prospects, gave him a guest spot on Rising Down (Def Jam, 2008).
Before dropping out to pursue a musical career in 2004, the DMV (District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia) native bounced through three colleges on football scholarships. He has subsequently attacked the rap game like an offensive coordinator, eschewing offers from majors like Epic to sign a production contract with Mark Ronson's Allido Records. In turn, Ronson negotiated a joint deal with Interscope to distribute Wale's debut, tentatively scheduled for this year.
Everyone loves raw, unformed talent, and hip-hop fans are no exception. They love MCs who can freestyle for days, never mind that their stanzas flow with rhyme but with neither reason nor hooks. They venerate rappers who compile mixtapes chock full of half-ideas. Great American Songbook traditions like harmonic structure and verse-chorus forms are nonexistent or merely subtext to the rapper's unyielding voice.
Wale's Mixtape About Nothing is nominally built around samples from Seinfeld, punctuated by Jerry Seinfeld's standup bits and Jason Alexander's antics. But Wale, with his twangy Southeast accent, takes center stage. He mostly wanders around, offering flickers of insight amid heaps of undistinguishable lines. Then he "goes in," to use a hip-hop phrase that describes a moment of clarity.
On "The Kramer," he opens with a snippet from Michael Richards' infamous 2006 standup routine at the Laugh Factory, when Richards' shouted to a heckler in the audience, "He's a nigger!" Wale uses it to launch a sprawling discourse on race. He begins by confessing, "And P said that I should stop saying nigga / But what's the difference / I'd still be a nigga." But at the end, he declares, "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 ev'ry nigga there's a little bit of Kramer / Self-hatred / I hate you / And myself."
Two years ago, Lil Wayne rocketed to superstardom on the basis of these kinds of rambling tone poems. Hundreds of his tracks fueled a cottage industry of Weezy mixtapes. As a result, everyone is flooding the Internet with rangy bedroom studio cuts, proclaiming their status as "the truth" to anyone who'll listen. In 2008, Brooklyn MC Sha Stimuli issued 12 mixtapes in 12 months, basing one around the 2007 Jennifer Aniston comedy The Break Up. Charles Hamilton dropped eight mixtapes in two months. In most cases, all this sound and fury signifies nothing; worse, it makes it difficult for a talented artist such as Wale to stand out.
"Everybody's doing blogs. Everybody's doing freestyles. Everybody's doing, like, way too much stuff on the Internet," Wale complains by phone. "It's like, c'mon, we get it. It's way overdone now." It's the most provocative statement the 24-year-old makes during a brief interview. Otherwise, Wale keeps his answers amiable but bland. When I ask him about the dreaded "hipster rapper" tag, he claims not to know what I'm talking about.