The Week In Pop

The Week In Pop: What Wale Can Learn From J. Cole

On paper, Wale’s rap career has been a success. He dropped several critically acclaimed mixtapes, aligned himself with Rick Ross at the peak of Bawse’s power, scored a number of inescapable urban radio hits, and just debuted at #1 with The Album About Nothing, a project on which he collaborated with his lifelong hero Jerry Seinfeld. He can sell out shows anywhere. Like Drake, his hometown NBA team hired him as an ambassador. So many rappers would trade for his life. But the narrative swirling around D.C.’s most famous MC has never been triumphant. No matter how much he achieves, Wale remains a punchline — perennially frustrating, bottomlessly thirsty, eternally incapable of attaining the respect he craves.

The defining event of Wale’s career so far was when he called Complex to angrily rant about his 2013 album The Gifted being left off the magazine’s year-end list. You couldn’t have drawn up a better illustration of his predicament: rap tastemakers shrugging at Wale, Wale raging at rap tastemakers. He exhibits a Kanye-like hunger for validation from prestigious institutions, but whereas West carved out a legendary career that secured him as much validation as an artist could ever dream of, Wale goes wanting because the weight of his work doesn’t match that of the chip on his shoulder. He’s closer to Kid Ink than Kanye, Drake, or Kendrick in that he makes moves on the charts but he’s often the least memorable part of his own songs. Firmly entrenched on rap’s B-list, he steadily churns out hits without ever striking gold, always chasing trends rather than setting them.

On The Album About Nothing track “The Helium Balloon,” Wale quips, “Still know what my core needs, so fuck who ignores me.” But his attitude throughout the album suggests that he actually cares a lot about the opinions outside his base. There’s a distinct flavor of bitterness to his lyrics, as if he’s contained the jealous fire that inspired his Complex rant without completely snuffing it out. (Side note: How furious must he be about Big Sean’s recent critical reappraisal?) When you factor in the desperation of returning to the Seinfeld gimmick he already wrung dry over the course of two mixtapes, it’s altogether a bad look. Wale must be onto something, though, because there he is on top of the albums chart, the world’s most popular struggle rapper. He’s got the “knowing what his core needs” part down; the “fuck who ignores me” part could use some work.

Wale ought to study the example of his peer J. Cole. Like Wale, Cole has often been the butt of jokes. He’s been prone to mimicking his influences and trying too hard. He too landed his own #1 album recently, and he’s long been more popular on the radio than on the internet. The two rappers even went on tour together last year. But there’s been a perceptible difference to Cole’s approach lately. He genuinely doesn’t seem to care if anybody thinks he’s hip-hop royalty or that critics like our own rap columnist would rather turn this subject over to the pop columnist; debuting with 375,000 in equivalent sales and setting Spotify records seem to bolster him more than potshots from Big Ghost bother him.

When Cole showed up in Ferguson for the civil rights protests last summer, he emanated humility and authority. He wasn’t there to get attention or be a spokesman; he was there because it mattered. Similarly winsome was 2014 Forest Hills Drive, the moody and intensely personal album Cole recorded at his childhood home and released last December with no advance singles. For the first time he felt more like his own man and not the Kanye superfan responsible for “Crooked Smile.” His lyrics overflowed with resonant cultural commentary and magnetic personality. The record’s consistently high quality and staggering sales figures cast Cole in a new light; it served as a reminder of why actual A-list rap stars like Drake and Kendrick consider him a peer and why Jay Z thought he was a big enough deal to give him a share in Tidal. Maybe he’s not on their level in terms of influence and vision, but he’s a force to be reckoned with.

I got a sense of Cole’s self-possessed swagger when his tour rolled through my city last week. There was minimal set design and no hypeman, and his backing band amounted to just a DJ and two keyboardists. All eyes were on Cole, and his magnetism was more than enough to carry the show. He performed most of 2014 Forest Hills Drive, interrupted occasionally by spoken-word reflections and one brief intermission to trot out his old mixtape tracks. The new material and his presence were compelling, to the extent that I almost wouldn’t have minded if he hadn’t come back to burn through four of his biggest hits. (OK, no “Power Trip” would have bummed me out.)

The whole thing made me wonder what Wale’s career would look like now if he’d staid the course from his mixtapes rather than muddying his sound and vision in the name of commercial crossover. The Mixtape About Nothing was overflowing with bubbly, contagious go-go hip-hop, and its darkly epic N-word dissection “The Kramer” remains one of the greatest rap songs I’ve ever heard. He was a lot of fun back then in part because he was just being himself, working out his talent one track at a time. That’s where Cole finds himself now. He seems to be refining his skills rather than squandering them, in part because he’s doing his thing without regard for the haters. It was laughable when Seinfeld named Wale one of his all-time top five rappers in Chris Rock’s Top Five, and it would be almost as laughable if somebody put Cole on their list. But Cole shrugs off that kind of laughter whereas Wale seethes in its wake, and the difference in the results is tangible.

CHART WATCH

“Uptown Funk!” rolls on! Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars’ 2015-defining hit remains at #1 for a 14th straight week, tied for second-longest all-time. Only seven other songs have ever lasted this long on top. Here’s an updated list from Billboard:

16, “One Sweet Day,” Mariah Carey & Boyz II Men, Dec. 2, 1995
14 (to date), “Uptown Funk!,” Ronson feat. Mars, Jan. 17, 2015
14, “I Gotta Feeling,” the Black Eyed Peas, July 11, 2009
14, “We Belong Together,” Mariah Carey, June 4, 2005
14, “Candle in the Wind 1997″/”Something About the Way You Look Tonight,” Elton John, Oct. 11, 1997
14, “Macarena (Bayside Boys Mix),” Los Del Rio, Aug. 3, 1996
14, “I’ll Make Love to You,” Boyz II Men, Aug. 27, 1994
14, “I Will Always Love You,” Whitney Houston, Nov. 28, 1992

“Uptown Funk!” also ties “I Gotta Feeling” and “We Belong Together” as the longest-standing #1 single this century. Maroon 5’s “Sugar” remains at #2, while Ellie Goulding’s “Love Me Like You Do” climbs back to #3, and the Weeknd’s “Earned It” climbs to a new peak at #4. It’s by far the best-charting solo single of the Weeknd’s career and his best-charting overall by a few spots; his Ariana Grande duet “Love Me Harder” topped out at #7. Ed Sheeran’s “Thinking Out Loud” clocks in at #5 this week, followed by Fetty Wap’s “Trap Queen” at #6 and Taylor Swift’s “Style” at #7. The Flo Rida/Sage The Gemini/Lookas hit “G.D.F.R.” rises to #8, while Rihanna/Kanye West/Paul McCartney’s “FourFiveSeconds” falls to #9. Wiz Khalifa’s Charlie Puth collab “See You Again” from the Furious 7 is up to #10 this week, closing out the top 10.

As mentioned above, Wale’s The Album About Nothing debuts at #1 on the Billboard 200 albums chart with 100,000 equivalent units, besting the hard-charging Furious 7 soundtrack, up to #2 with 74,000 after debuting at #17 last week. Billboard notes that Furious 7’s leap into the top 2 is the largest since Les Miserables rose 31 places from #33 to #2 in January 2013. Just below Furious 7 is Furious 7 star Ludacris, whose Ludaversal debuts at #3 with 73,000. Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly is at #4 with 65,000, followed by Taylor Swift’s 1989 at #5 with 59,000. It’s 1989’s 23rd straight week in the top 5, the best since Adele’s 21 pulled off 39 straight weeks in 2011.

Sam Smith’s In The Lonely Hour is at #6 with 59,000. Then it’s Darius Rucker at #7 with 57,000 for Southern Style. Death Cab For Cutie are close behind with 56,000 for Kintsugi, good for a #8 debut. The Fifty Shades Of Grey soundtrack slides to #9 with 54,000, and Sufjan Stevens closes out the top 10 with his best sales week ever. Carrie & Lowell accumulated 53,000 equivalent units to debut at #10. It’s Stevens’ best career sales week, though not his best chart placement: The Age Of Adz debuted at #7 in 2010.

TRACK CITY

Hilary Duff – “Sparks”
Duff’s “All About You” was one of 2014’s best pop singles — around here we’ll always think of it as “banjo ‘Boom Clap'” — and “Sparks” suggests her comeback album but actually be stacked. Penned by Tove Lo, it launches with a playful whistle against a barebones electronic pulse. From there it builds into a dance-floor hit in waiting that deserves to rule the radio this summer.

Madonna – “Ghost Town”
Madonna got Terrence Howard from Empire to co-star in her cinematic new video. Who says she doesn’t understand the zeitgeist anymore?

Mumford & Sons – “The Wolf”
I like Foo Fighters-Mumford a lot better than Coldplay-Mumford.

Becky G – “Lovin’ So Hard”
Becky G has yet to show off any sort of personality, but if she keeps ending up on tracks this likable, she can be as much of a blank slate as she wants.

Tiara Thomas – “On Me”
Thomas, who sang on one version of Wale’s “Bad,” has been steadily accumulating fire singles since last year. She gave us the one-night-stand anthem “One Night” and the tender acoustic ballad “How It Is” in recent months. The sultry “On Me” splits the difference; it exists in that post-midnight zone pioneered by Drake and 40, and I can imagine those guys jacking it for one of their trademark unannounced remixes.

Boaz von de Beatz – “Guappa” (Feat. Riff RAFF & Mr. Polska)
This song is garbage, but the video!

NEWS IN BRIEF

  • The only thing left on Darius Rucker’s bucket list is to sing the hook on a hit rap song. [Yahoo]
  • One Direction’s Niall Horan caddied for Rory McIlroy during a Masters warm-up round. [BBC]
  • Avril Lavigne is working on a Christmas album. [Billboard]
  • Idris Elba is making an album based on his character from the TV series Luther.[Fact]
  • Jennifer Lopez threw some pleasant shade at Tidal. [Idolator]
  • Adam Levine knows how to deal with stage crashers gracefully. [Instagram]

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