I admit, when Wale put out his Mixtape About Nothing last year, some of my distaste for it was fueled by my then-obsession with Lil Wayne's Tha Carter III, released around the same time. Not to say my opinion of the tape has changed. It's just that after I felt like C3 had been shortchanged and met with weak, predictable criticisms in certain circles, the fact that a mixtape I thought was pretty clearly inferior was attracting the level of praise it was seemed a little weird. I wouldn't really've minded if people'd heard the tape and said "hey, this guy has potential," but I wasn't hearing greatness.
Well it's 2009 and unlike last time I can't whine about people being mean to poor Mr. Carter. Listening to Wale's new Back to the Feature mixtape, though, I can't say my opinion of the guy has changed. Namely, that he was strategically created in a lab as a less interesting version of Wayne, only with specific lyrical characteristics (supposedly bridging the mainstream-underground gap between flossing and more thoughtful material) that give him greater appeal to true-school hip-hop fans. Of course, it sounds like I'm getting into a played-out "pure hip hop" argument, and I don't really care about that. If someone's dope they're dope. But if you see this tape in people's top whatever at the end of the year, it'll say more about the overall quality of current hip hop than anything.
Truthfully, my opinion of Wale's rapping is similar to my thoughts on the latest "next big thing" in hip hop, Drake. Both have flows that I think bear a noticeable Wayne influence, and both make some distinctly Weezyan choices in punchlines, but lack his charisma and as such tend to come off as fairly workmanlike. To me Wale's "Nike Boots" remix is a prime example of this. Wayne comes with a ridiculously half-assed guest verse on the song, but you still remember his part more because of his vocal tics and more direct delivery.
That's my essential problem with Wale -- if he refined his flow, maybe his lyrics would hit me in a different way. Not to say he should dumb down for his audience to double his dollars. It's just that for me, the delivery and inflection he generally uses is a detriment to whatever message he's trying to get across. It's difficult for me to explain exactly without tossing off lazy descriptions like "he's boring," but he strains his voice in a way that makes it sound like he's running out of breath, and doesn't pause or switch up his flow for emphasis. So you get a constant flurry of rhymes that I suppose might be technically sound, but has the effect of making no specific lines stand out more than others, and doesn't hold your attention. I'd describe it as similar to my issue with certain old-school rappers who use straight-line flows as opposed to, say, emcees like Snoop and Jay-Z who play(ed) off their beats, even though Wale's delivery doesn't exactly fit into that straight-ahead category.
On the production side, Back to the Feature is better than The Mixtape About Nothing, but that's not hard considering how nondescript that tape was. Most of the beats are handled by 9th Wonder and fall in line with the middling soul/boom-bap aesthetic he tends to get flak for. In addition to the guy's drums just lacking punch, the samples he loops here aren't interesting enough to carry whole songs. Granted, I'd rather listen to these beats than the tinny synth stylings that've dominated even some of the most high-profile Southern rap of the past 1-2 years (just trying to provide some balanced hate here,) but that's like saying I'd rather listen to elevator music than your kid brother jamming on a Casio keyboard. Not a huge compliment.
It's not that I think Wale is wack or anything, but if anything I tend to get more irked by "consistent" rap albums that have no standout songs than the obvious wack rap scapegoats of the moment. I mean, anyone can listen to a Soulja Boy album and tell me it sucks. Not difficult to figure out. But when it comes to some of the guys who've been hyped as alternatives to popular hip hop in recent years, I feel like some people're just sticking by a certain hip-hop aesthetic out of principle, even if the actual music isn't especially interesting. In a way, albums that are consistently mediocre are more frustrating than albums that're aggressively bad, because with the former you may at least feel like they had the potential to be good. And "has potential" is the most praise I can offer Wale at the moment, because he's definitely not fully-formed yet.