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The last time Wale released a summer mixtape to hype a fall album, he had a Lady Gaga cameo. Nowadays he’s just grateful for his Twitter fans: The Eleven One Eleven Theory dropped after he clocked his millionth follower. The new mixtape may have crashed HulkShare yesterday, but it’s fair to say Wale can’t claim the same level of anticipation for his sophomore album, Ambition, as he saw for 2009’s underwhelming major-label debut, Attention: Deficit.
He’s survived hype and changed teams, joining Rick Ross’ Maybach Music along with Philly underground ace Meek Mill and southern bro Pill. The Eleven One Eleven Theory is an important litmus test: What sort of niche is Wale aiming for? How well does he carry a solo release when he’s playing Memphis Bleek to Ross’ Jay-Z? What is Wale’s emotional state after an already long list of career ups and downs? How does Wale feel about college athletics?
Seeking answers, we gave that new mixtape a track-by-track dissection. Marcus J. Moore took the odd numbers, Ramon Ramirez the evens. Spoiler alert: The Wale tape is aight.
1. “Theory 11.1.11” Leading by a Tupac interview clip, Wale uses spoken-word poetry to chastise his haters and critique his artistic progression. “I give my heart to an unforgiving genre where passion is frowned upon, where the muzzle’s ’round them all,” Wale says over a sparse piano solo that swells as he speaks. He sounds conflicted, if not broken, but that doesn’t mean he’s lost confidence: “I’m only but a man, but man enough to challenge y’all.”
2. “Fuck You” Wale compares his penis to a gavel, over a well-produced soul banger. He also tells us why he enjoys arguing on Twitter: “It’s just simply my interest to intricately riddle niggas.”
3. “Drums and Shit” A battle-ready, raucous break beat with record scratches and distorted drum cymbals. On this quick stream of consciousness, Wale flexes his lyricism, addresses D.C. gentrification, and shouts out a hood near my Landover hometown. “Smoking loud, enjoying my youth/Take you out Kentland and show you a zoo.” With this song, Wale shows he’s not all flash, and that he still has an ear for old-school hip-hop.
4. “Chain Music” Bottle service music: a club track about nothing wherein the beat is driven by four repetitious synth notes. Rick Ross’ sampled hook comes away with the best line (“chain so big can’t pop my collar”), and that’s unfortunate.
5. “Lace Frontin” What’s a Wale record without a call-and-response track for the ladies? Continuing the break-beat theme, the artist uses layered percussion and a DMX vocal sample to quickly celebrate real women, while criticizing the fake ones: “Fake eyes, fake bitches, fake bras, and you ask Twitter why you gettin’ fake guys.” He also admits his misogyny, even if he’s trying to improve (“I say bitch a lot, though I’m proud of my sisters.”) If nothing else, at least the music sounds good.
6. “Mother Nature” DMV producer BuBu brings it: a well-placed Screw hook, a quiet-storm beat on the right side of corny, great background singers. Wale does not (“We the shit, no Metamucil,” a dig at the Sacramento Kings).
7. “Barry Sanders” It’s no secret that Wale loves sports. With a long intro and blaring horns, this triumphant track punctuates that love, saturated with plenty of references for enthusiasts: Hail Mary passes, the NBA D-League, and local basketball legend Len Bias. Here, Wale raps: “With this recording, I’m as sick as Jordan before Game 6.” Well played.
8. “That Way” A Curtis Mayfield sample, nice drums when they finally kick in—-this beat is lavish. Jeremih’s lover-man hook serves its purpose. Again, Rick Ross is three times more interesting than Wale with his super-coked-out love raps: “She my Billie Jean, we ménage with Mary Jane.” Ross has always been up front about the fact that the honies didn’t start returning his inappropriate texts until he got famous, so when he raps about doin’ it, he does so with an appreciated hunger and wonder.
9. “Passive Aggres-Her” With filtered drums and a midtempo R&B groove, this dark record adds an unexpected twist to an otherwise upbeat project. Here, Wale discusses his love for crazy women and rocky, if not abusive, relationships. “You bite me and I bite back, and call it love,” a woman’s voice sings on the chorus. Still, the song works, no matter how sadomasochistic.
10. “Fairy Tales” The “Black Girl Lost” track, with a modern aspiring-model twist. Wale does his thing, but the second half has singer Lil Duval oscillating between guttural singing and slangin’ observational humor about female hygiene. It’s terrible, whether or not Duval laid down those vocals in a three-piece purple suit.
11. “Ocean Drive” Possibly influenced by Wale’s Ross affiliation, this track is rooted in Caribbean sounds and references fun times in South Beach. “Ocean Drive” is much its inspiration—-light and breezy—-but it isn’t lyrically captivating. More suited for the dance hall than the block.
12. “Samples and Shit” Two minutes of loosely structured rapping over a skeletal disco croon, with minimal percussion. Wale is effective in conveying his strong anti-hater message.
13. “Ambitious Girl” Strings and light drums play the background as Wale pays homage to professional women with their own goals. The song comes together well, with Wale’s filtered voice shouting out different colleges on the hook.
14. “Let’s Chill” Wale is ready to find his Mrs. Folarin. Sucka for love music. Every facet of this joint burns smoothly, which is kind of a bummer because I was hoping to just type “let’s not” and move forward.
15. “Pick Six” A football reference in which a defensive player intercepts a pass and runs it in for a touchdown. I mean, this is a Wale project, right? The song is go-go influenced, and discusses women and references sports yet again: “I’m Air Jordan, you Ron Harper just fittin’ in.” Notice a trend?
16. “Varsity Blues” Wale should drop more sports zingers. This song is about the exploitation of the African-American youth athlete who can’t accept meals from Deion Sanders, but whose host university makes millions off his likeness. The samples are a little off, though—-while Reggie Bush and Cam Newton work as sympathetic figures, Maurice Clarrett, JaMarcus Russell, and Pacman Jones are universally recognized as horrible failures and terrible people. Couple Wale’s Twitter career lifeblood with athletes’ recent taste for social networking, “Varsity Blues” could be an unofficial anthem. Also if you don’t think college athletes should be paid in 2011, you’re a fool.
17. “Underdog” An aggressive yet contradictory tale about being underrated as a rapper. As self-effacing as it begins, Wale quickly shrugs off the humility and compares himself to a young Jay-Z. “I ain’t sayin’ I don’t fuck with all these other niggas, I’m just sayin’ I’m above all these other niggas.” On one hand, he’s frustrated about being overlooked. In the next breath, he’s on the throne. Confusing.
18. “Podium” Starts with a canned Jay-Z interview, segues into distorted raps over Top Gun blues guitar. At first it’s a major eye-roll, but Wale is aggressive, succinct, and this flow drops the exhausting drag his more laid back styles weigh down many songs with. I like the Phillip Rivers line. I like “out in the District they sellin’ water and buyin’ pistols,” too. Can we get that on a campaign poster?
19. “Globetrotter” A bouncy, Southern-influenced beat with church bells. Wale takes a backseat as 2 Chainz rhymes about ballin’ and traveling the globe. Still, the DMV native quickly addresses his place atop the local scene.