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Wale‘s sophomore album Ambition sold 164,000 copies in its first week, debuting at No. 2 on the Billboard charts (behind Bieber!) and thereby making him twice as popular as the seemingly more popular Big Sean, though still a little less popular than the seemingly as popular J. Cole.
You may have noticed Wale on the cover of last week’s Washington City Paper and in an accompanying long-form essay, which I wrote. The piece, which took a deep dive on Wale’s career and was extremely critical of Ambition, proved controversial and divisive along predictable lines. Wale’s detractors generally seemed to love the piece, while Wale fans loathed it. I guess when writing about something as personal as music, it’s almost impossible to turn a mind around completely.
Still, it was frustrating to read the many comments and tweets that only furthered the victimization narrative that Wale has crafted for himself. (Because, to be clear, it’s Wale who’s placed his detractors—-and by extension his engagement with them—-at the center of his storyline.) Inevitably, the paper and I were accused of hating, even despite the essay’s attempt to diffuse the idea that any—-even scathing—critiques come from a place of hatred.
I’ve been writing about the guy and his music for nearly five years now, sometimes quite positively. Wale is a promising rapper who has made some gigantic missteps, rubbed quite a few people the wrong way in the process, and still landed somewhere close to on top. His trajectory has something to do with his music, sure, but it’s also a product of the business choices he’s made and the persona he’s presented. I don’t personally think that he’s a “fuckin fag” and I’m fairly certain he’s never actually lived in a garbage can. The piece was clear on that, although at least one commenter seemed to think those opinions belong to me, not the detractors whom I referenced.
Recently, New York magazine’s Nitsuh Abebe wrote of a similar disconnect when he riled up his corner of the music world with a piece on Feist and Wilco and caused some of his audience to similarly mistake an account of public opinion for his own. On his Tumblr he responded:
Shouldn’t it be more possible—-maybe even more common—-for essays about music to be able to neutrally describe what “sources say,” or sources do, or sources listen to, without out trying to read behind that into what the author’s own tastes are? Amazingly enough, this isn’t something I’m suggesting out of defensiveness: I just think it’s incredibly important. There needs to be room for music writing that’s not just about the author performing taste and making value judgments. So much of the life of music—-the ways we hear it, the things we want from it, and so on—-exist in a huge, complicated context, and someone needs to describe that context.
Some readers complained that my article didn’t cover enough of the record. But if you were looking for a “pure” record review, it’s in there, only it’s contained within a broader contextual survey. There’s a reason for that: Ambition didn’t multiply Attention Deficit‘s sales several times over because it’s a better record (it is, but not considerably so). It did so mostly due to dynamics external to the music—-not ambition or achieved excellence. The unfortunate thing is that this moderate success leaves Wale with little incentive to actually improve his music.
But good for him: Maybe he can at least mellow out on Twitter now.