Olubowale Victor Akintimehin, known professionally by his stage name of Wale, is an interesting, if inconsistent, artist. With many of the rapper’s earliest undertakings, in the form of thematically-driven mixtapes, being met with universal critical acclaim, particularly his Seinfeld-inspired endeavour, the mixtape about nothing, Wale’s full-length studio albums have often fallen short of the bar set on the projects that put him on the musical map. What’s more, with such an irate social media presence, routinely engaging with critics and trolls who deride his work, the D.C. MC has generated a rather negative image of himself, which has only increased the extent to which he has been reprimanded. This has instigated somewhat of a downward spiral of Internet bickering, with the artist now responding to anyone and everyone who should publicly express their dissatisfaction with his music, even phoning up and threatening Complex writer Insanul Ahmed simply because the magazine had not included his then-newest record, The Gifted, in their year-end list of the 50 best albums of 2013. The title of Wale’s latest studio album, SHiNE, which stands for “still here ignoring negative energy”, therefore, comes across as comedically ironic and lacking in self-awareness. Perhaps the only way in which this name can be interpreted as making any sense is based on the artistic direction taken by the MC on this new record. Indeed, with many critics lamenting the loss of Wale’s experimental appeal on some of his more recent releases, the fact that SHiNE is an attempt at a complete pop crossover could maybe be seen as the artist’s way of “ignoring” the opinions of his adversaries, but even this is a massive stretch. Moreover, the album’s title is far from the only aspect of SHiNE that is lacking in self-awareness. The hip pop approach taken by Akintimehin on this album results in a collection of songs that appeal to the lowest common denominator of rap fans, with the artist pursuing styles that no end of fellow musicians are working with in the current musical climate. What’s worse is the fact that Wale barely meets the standard set by his contemporaries on the best moments in the tracklisting, with the MC even trying his hand at impassioned, syrupy smooth crooning at times, for which he simply lacks the vocal talent to pull off with any semblance of accuracy or potency. Indeed, with the smidgen of admirable artistic ventures across SHiNE being relegated to the songs that most closely resemble the material that made a name for the musician in the first place, the record, for the most part, comes across as a clumsy and ill-conceived attempt at recycling ideas that have been done better and that don’t suit the rapper’s style at all.
As was made clear in his Twitter altercation with YouTube music critic Anthony Fantano, Wale intended SHiNE to pay homage to the music of his country of origin, Nigeria, by incorporating aspects of popular West African music, particularly Afrobeat and Afropop, into the instrumentals on his latest album. Of course, such a pursuit, whilst nothing entirely new for hip hop, is an admirable approach to utilise when picking the beats to feature across this record. In the case of SHiNE, however, the influences from Afrobeat are very minimal, and this is largely as a result of the fact that Wale’s attempts at capturing a West African sound are often lost in translation, typically merging with the pervasive influence of Caribbean music amongst the contemporary rap scene, resulting in an awkward hodgepodge of stylistic ideas that, ultimately, sounds like a contrived bid to follow in Drake’s footsteps. My Love is the first track from SHiNE to convey such an identity crisis, and it just so happens to be the specific song that instigated the flame war between Akintimehin and Fantano. Perhaps there are whiffs of Nigerian influence to be found in the intermittent passages of desert-tinged guitar lines or mocking vocals featured throughout the cut, but for the most part, the primary stylistic touchstones at play seem to be of Caribbean origin, which only makes sense, given that Major Lazer and Diplo, who routinely work with dancehall and reggae-based production, contributed to the track’s instrumental. Of course, merely misconstruing a song’s genre is not a reason for criticism in and of itself, but it is nevertheless relevant in the case of My Love, as the cues taken from Afro-Caribbean music are largely surface-level, with the beat simply adhering to the most superficial and applicable aspects of such styles without adding anything of substance to them. The result, whilst far from bad, is a generally inconspicuous foray into this sound, and is certainly not the statement that Wale has made it out to be. Similarly, with the borderline over-produced vocal contributions from Dua Lipa and Wizkid being at the forefront, the track is largely taken in the direction of a summery pop song, which, again, only buries the Afro-Caribbean influences even further. When it comes to the cuts that seek to incorporate Nigerian stylistic principles, it’s Fine Girl wherein the cracks in Wale’s execution really show up. With the rapper’s refrain being comprised of only five words and being so poorly performed, one would expect it to be repeated far less than it is, but Wale allows an already underwritten hook to become even more stale with how frequently he pops up to clumsily sing it. Likewise, the guest appearance from Nigerian rapper Olamide is squandered on a similarly repetitious post-chorus, whilst the washed-out, unobtrusive instrumental does nothing to make these lacklustre performances any more interesting.
Little more can be said with regards to even the songs that exhibit no influence whatsoever from West African music, with Wale striving for mainstream sounds that seldom suit his style and to which he rarely even attempts to add anything substantial. If anything, the most glaring flaw of SHiNE is just how lacking in substance much of it is, with many songs often being so repetitive and rudimentary that they offer nothing to make them the slightest bit conspicuous. The longest song in the tracklisting, Scarface Rozay Gotti, for instance, is largely based around a lethargic and monotonous hook from Wale and, with this refrain being interrupted only by two verses, there appears to be absolutely no need for this cut to be stretched out across a five-minute runtime. Come to think of it, this overblown song structure is applied to quite the number of cuts across SHiNE, and it seems that this may be Akintimehin’s idea of how to write a successful pop rap track; pour all effort into crafting a repetitious and uninteresting hook and then occasionally throw in an unmemorable verse to pad out the song’s duration. Fashion Week follows this formula to the letter and is one of the album’s most tedious tracks as a result, with the beat being comprised of a barely noticeable, one-bar, piano chord progression that is left practically unchanged throughout the cut’s duration. Other tracks suffer simply from some poor performances and some of Wale’s most senseless lyricism to feature on any project of his thus far in his career. My PYT stands as easily the best example of this on the record, with the hook — during which the nasal crooning of Sam Sneak and Wale intertwine in a rather ungainly manner — being an awkward, autotuned rendition of Michael Jackson’s classic single P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing). Just in case the graceless nod to Jackson wasn’t enough, the beat is comprised of an awkward, DJ Mustard-esque, G-funk interpretation of Marvin Gaye’s Sexual Healing, with the track, as a whole, thus being a maladroit concoction of Wale’s own lacklustre ideas and the motifs of other artists, which he was able to bastardise in some way or another. Ultimately, whilst it’s not entirely clear what Wale was striving for on SHiNE, his attempts at a pop crossover are far too short-sighted and half-baked to result in anything other than the mediocrity of much of this record, whilst the worst cuts from the tracklisting exhibit a genuine lack of knowledge concerning how to successfully execute such endeavours.
Perhaps the weirdest aspect of SHiNE is the fact that the atrocious singing from Wale on a track like DNA can be succeeded by Smile, which is a buoyant, jazz-tinged banger that goes down very well, at least comparatively speaking. Of course, with the exception of a very limited selection of songs elsewhere in the tracklisting, Smile does not represent the bulk of the album, with the record, for the most part, being more banal than bad. Indeed, whilst cuts such as My PYT and DNA are unequivocally egregious, much of SHiNE is merely lacking in originality to the point of being instantly forgettable. Whether it be the Caribbean hip pop infusion of My Love or the elementary trap stylings of Mathematics, it’s often the ordinariness of the album and the musician’s abandonment of the definitive artistic ideas that made him appealing during the time of the mixtape about nothing that lead to SHiNE being such an underwhelming, and sometimes infuriating, release.
The Vinyl Verdict: 4.5/10