Wale A Go-Go: Wale at Artscape, July 18
The old saying, â€śHip-hop makes great records but puts on lousy shows,” is a clichĂ© only because itâ€™s so often true. There was reason to think that Wale might defy this pattern, because this MC emerged from Washington D.C.â€™s go-go scene, where the live shows are usually stronger than the studio recordings. Waleâ€™s headlining set at Artscape Sunday didnâ€™t fulfill that hope, but it didnâ€™t quite dash it either.
The set got off to a bad start. The band seemed ready to go at the advertised 6:30 p.m. time but the crowd had to suffer through 20 minutes of false starts, misleading promises, and awkward pauses before the show began in earnest. When Wale bounded onto the stage in front of the Maryland Institute College of Art’s station building, his dreads were pushed back beneath a red baseball cap and he quickly peeled off a denim jacket in the sweltering heat. He was backed by a go-go-like bandâ€”guitar, bass, drums, congas, keys, and turntablesâ€”but the rhythm section was buried in a muddy mix, the guitarist leaned on hoary rock moves, and the DJ kept missing cues. Nor did the band know how to stay out of the way of the vocals. And Wale made the perennial hip-hop move of inviting so many non-performers onstage that the show lost its visual focus. It often seemed as if he were singing in the middle of an airport terminal with strangers walking by for no apparent reason.
The vocals, though, were terrific. The Nigerian-American rapper, born Olubowale Victor Folarin, could spit out syllables rapidly and crisplyâ€”most notably in machine-gun fashion on â€śMirrorsâ€ťâ€”and still seem like he was having fun. He could even throw out brand-new, a cappella rhymes that his band hadnâ€™t learned yet and still hold the crowdâ€™s attention. He was most effective, in fact, when the band pulled way back on the romantic hip-hop ballad, â€śDiary,” allowing Wale to sit in a folding chair and use a conversational voice to describe a woman whoâ€™s been hurt so much by men that she wonâ€™t even consider the singer. Both the lyrics and the live rap pulled off the difficult trick of balancing the woman’s justified feelings against the singer’s sincere affection.
Wale was just as capable of belting out a stomping boast, such as his 2006 underground breakthrough hit, â€śUptown Roamers,” or last yearâ€™s sing-along anthem of lust, â€śLet It Loose.” He ran up MICAâ€™s stone stairs in the middle of â€śChillinâ€™â€ť and engaged the arm-waving crowd in call-and-response on â€ś90210,â€ť a masterful depiction of the dangers of idolizing rappers and other pop stars. That portrait of a doomed groupie was balanced by â€śMama Told Me,” the self-portrait of a struggling, would-be star. Both these tunes from last year’s impressive Attention Deficit subvert the easy myths about show biz, and itâ€™s Waleâ€™s willingness to undermine the bling, bong, and bang formulas of hip-hop that make him so fascinating. If only he could tighten up his live show.