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Wale A Go-Go: Wale at Artscape, July 18

July 21, 2010

The old saying, “Hip-hop makes great records but puts on lousy shows,” is a clichĂ© only because it’s so often true. There was reason to think that Wale might defy this pattern, because this MC emerged from Washington D.C.’s go-go scene, where the live shows are usually stronger than the studio recordings. Wale’s headlining set at Artscape Sunday didn’t fulfill that hope, but it didn’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 band—guitar, bass, drums, congas, keys, and turntables—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 crisply—most notably in machine-gun fashion on “Mirrors”—and still seem like he was having fun. He could even throw out brand-new, a cappella rhymes that his band hadn’t learned yet and still hold the crowd’s attention. He was most effective, in fact, when the band pulled way back on the romantic hip-hop ballad, “Diary,” allowing Wale to sit in a folding chair and use a conversational voice to describe a woman who’s been hurt so much by men that she won’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, “Uptown Roamers,” or last year’s sing-along anthem of lust, “Let It Loose.” He ran up MICA’s stone stairs in the middle of “Chillin’” and engaged the arm-waving crowd in call-and-response on “90210,” a masterful depiction of the dangers of idolizing rappers and other pop stars. That portrait of a doomed groupie was balanced by “Mama 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 it’s Wale’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.

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  • Threefortyone

    The reason for the late start was because of the inadequate sound company. Through out the entire weekend the sound company was slow on the change overs, one of their monitors was constantly distorted, and they seemed to not know how to get the DJ's sound working or the drum machine for Wale's band.