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Wale -- 'Folarin' (Maybach Music Group)( Handout / January 13, 2013 )
DOWNLOAD: Wale, 'Folarin'
RATING: *** out of 4
When Wale announced he had signed to Rick Ross' Maybach Music Group in 2011, it seemed like a desperate move from a rapper worried about his career. (The concern seemed warranted after the D.C. rapper's 2009 debut, "Attention Deficit," flopped, despite a Lady Gaga-assisted lead single.)
Instead, the profile-raising move turned out to be savvy, even if it wasn't a natural fit. Wale's first album with MMG, 2011's "Ambition," was a noticeable improvement, proving the rapper could credibly serenade female listeners ("That Way," "Lotus Flower Bomb") and motivate hustlers ("Bait," the title track featuring Ross).
"Folarin," the new free mixtape, continues Wale's unexpected trend upward. Like Ross' "Rich Forever" mixtape, "Folarin" sounds like a retail album because of its glistening beats, professional mastering and of-the-moment features (2 Chainz, French Montana and Trinidad James all make appearances). But like his label boss, Wale smartly keeps the spotlight on himself.
If "Ambition" was the sound of Wale gaining confidence and versatility from rubbing shoulders with rap's A-list, then "Folarin" finds him steadily building on the same foundation. On "Bad," he's the observant lover who stole Ross' hit "Diced Pineapples." On "Get Me Doe," he holds his own next to last year's top braggart, 2 Chainz. And where Ross perpetuates kingpin fiction, Wale takes pride in sidestepping the street life he saw growing up ("Skool Daze").
But more than anything, "Folarin" is a showcase for Wale's lyrics. On "Change Up," he raps, "W's on my mind, peep what I'm getting at / Attire proper, Bryce Harper, though slightly darker," which works as a double entendre, a shout-out to his hometown, an athlete-related metaphor and a pretty funny internal rhyme scheme. "Folarin" is filled with lines like these -- though the potency fluctuates -- and half of the fun is unpacking it all.
Wale knows he's smart, and he can be a brat about it. (In some interviews, he comes off like an unsatisfied only child on Christmas.) This has made him a punching bag in many hip-hop circles, an example of a rapper whose talents were overshadowed by his misplaced sense of entitlement.
On Instagram, he was up to it again, calling out popular blogs for not recognizing "Folarin" as one of the best mixtapes of the year, despite it being released a week before New Year's Eve. "Been slept on for a minute ... I gotta do something before I get too used to it," he wrote. It was Wale being Wale. He should hope the chip on his shoulder hasn't completely turned off his critics, because "Folarin" could go a long way toward changing their minds. --Wesley Case