Clap, Clap Like This: Wale Rocks Last Minute Set at the Carolina Theatre
NC A&T students made up the bulk of the crowd at Wale’s Caroina Theatre set last week, at least according to crowd response. (photo by Ryan Snyder)
After trudging through the rap trade’s dysfunctional hype machine for the past three years, Wale may be condemned, at least for the moment, to simply being a grossly underappreciated rapper, even if part of the blame falls on him. This time two years ago, his live shows would’ve been promoted as if he were hip-hop royalty.
At the very least, they would have had far more lead time than the mere nine days given to his UNCG student-promoted performance at the Carolina Theatre on Dec. 1. After a lukewarm reception to his feverishly awaited debut Attention Deficit and grumblings of sub-par performances over the summer led to a drop-off in demand, the luxury of hype doesn’t quite bear the same burden it did for Wale Folarin. The good news is, he just might be better off without it, as his performance with Donnis and Raleigh’s Foreign Exchange would attest.
Despite the show’s limited marketing, a crowd of around 400 had assembled by the time Wale took the stage just after 9:30 p.m. Earlier in the night, however, less than a quarter were in the house for Atlanta rapper Donnis’ short set, which included an indifferent delivery of his Lil Wayne collaboration “Gone” and a surprisingly excellent cover of Bubba Sparxxx’s “Claremont Lounge.” At the very moment that the 53 rd Grammy nominations were being announced, the Foreign Exchange were making the compre- hensive snub of Authenticity in every R&B category seem like an epic gaffe. Truthfully, it was unforgivable. It’s a better record than most R&B releases this year, but done live in the capable hands of Phonte and Nicolay, it’s a totally affecting experience. The full band brings out melodic textures that are sometimes lost in the album’s tight production, and hear ing Phonte sing songs like “Don’t Wait” live lends a warm expressiveness that can’t he felt on a record.
He’s always been an engaging front man, but this time around he’s let the music do the talking for itself rather than offer exposition for many of the pieces as he’s did during the Leave It All Behind shows. He did take time to talk to the crowd, however, stopping after “Laughing At Your Plans” to ask if everyone was getting hyped for Wale, only to have the ecstatic response engulfed in the hugeness of the Carolina Theatre. He did get some interest- ing feedback when taking a school roll call. Applause for the host UNCG only got a moder- ate response, while Guilford College only gener- ated one possessed scream from the balcony area. It was NC A&T students, however, that came out in force for Wale.
There’s no greater example of just how much the lines between mixtape and album have blurred than Wale’s output since 2005. He released five before his debut album ever dropped, each more celebrated than the last. The Seinfeld-themed The Mixtape About Nothing was a brilliant piece of conceptual art that exemplified his dedication to an aes- thetic and insight into serious issues, while also highlighting his penchant for extremely dry humor. With the mixtape medium, he’s free to do what he wants, which is why Attention Deficit was viewed as a disap- pointment; it sounded like the unseen hand of the label was yanking at his strings. The funky go-go sound that dominated his best work was, for the most part, pulled out from under and replaced with Mark Ronson- and Neptunes-created rubbish. Luckily, Wale knew that wasn’t what his fans at the Carolina Theatre wanted to hear. Though it was a bit of a letdown to see that Wale had left the tremendous DC go-go outfit the Uncalled 4 Band back at home, particularly since DJ Omega wasn’t always on the same page as the star, Wale seemed especially focused in his delivery. The reason behind it was probably made clear when he stopped to engage the audience for the first of many times. “Y’all don’t know what this is like when you’re drunk, seein’ everybody all blurry,” Wale said. “But I’m stone-cold sober right now.”
Of the many things Wale can do better than most rappers, his rapport with his fans is the one thing that rarely slumps — one recent notable Twitter incident notwithstanding.
There is no fourth wall with Wale. He invited two girls with cameras onstage on the promise that they’d record the show; he stopped to ask where the good after-parties were, nearly turn- ing his banter into a mini stand-up routine in the process; and even hung around for 15 min- utes after his set to sign autographs. He made good on his promise to come and hang out in the audience while reach- ing as far back as Paint A Picture with a few verses from his first track “Rhyme of the Century.” He shifted hard from the bouncy “WALEDANCE” into his freestyle on Travis Porter’s cover of Fat Joe’s “Make It Rain,” only to bring the audience back onstage with him for Attention Deficit’s most redeeming track “Pretty Girls” to close it out. For the former GQ Man of the Year, it wasn’t a total barn-burner. That’s probably not possible for him without his band present. But it was a redemptive showing for a rapper who’s got plenty of go-go left in him.