There’s a reason Wale was among the 11 names dropped in Kendrick Lamar’s infamous “Control” verse in 2013. His late-’00s mixtape run and debut album Attention Deficit established him as one of hip hop’s most promising young talents. His output since then has been inconsistent, and his new album SHiNE isn’t doing much to buck that trend. In fact, SHiNE might just be Wale’s weakest effort yet.
The album starts strong enough with “Thank God,” an optimistic tune with a lovely groove. The lush orchestral background strings beam positivity, and Wale skates through his verses with an ease and comfort indicative of his talent. The song plays out like a survey class in college; touching briefly on the sociopolitical state of Wale’s hometown, some light rapper braggadocio, prayers for haters, and hints at the recent trauma in Wale’s own life. Wale wraps all of this around a sticky, melodic hook by Jersey-born singer and actor Rotimi. “Thank God” is a soulful intro, and it’s arguably the best song on the entire tracklist.
The album takes a puzzling turn with “Running Back,” which features Lil Wayne. The track sounds nothing like the song that preceded it. The soul and enthusiasm of “Thank God” is replaced here with a synth-heavy, Caribbean-influenced beat that is way too sugary for the content of its already sparse verses. Though Wale does bring some his trademark flair for poetry, most of the song’s runtime is consumed by his uninspired singing about money stacks. It’s a frustratingly vapid song, especially coming from Wale.
The next song, “Scarface Rozay Gotti,” contains a punchier beat and a catchier hook. “My Love” has no business on this album. “Fashion Week” does have a solid instrumental with some satisfying low end in the mix, but isn’t itself enough to balance the uneven experience of SHiNE up to this point.
The album doesn’t pick up again until “CC White.” This is the song you’d expect to follow something as strong as “Thank God.” “CC White” almost plays out like the dark sequel to Common’s legendary “I Used to Love H.E.R.,” and finds Wale framing the catastrophic relationship between cocaine and his community in a metaphorical breakup. It’s a strong narrative technique that almost always goes over well in hip hop songs, especially when performed by writers as talented as Wale.
The album descends back into generic pop rap balladry and trap fusion from this point, picking up again with the smooth ”DNA” before closing fairly strongly with “Smile,” which again features Wale hinting at deeper messages and themes, but failing to give the material much more than a cursory glance.
The biggest problem with this album is one of opportunity. SHiNE doesn’t play to Wale’s strengths, and almost feels tone-deaf when you consider everything that’s happened to the country, in Wale’s city, and in his life since the release of his last LP The Album About Nothing.
It’s not totally fair to blame an artist for what’s not on their record, nor is it fair to expect Wale to dive deep into the trauma of his family’s recent miscarriage, or the triumph of successfully having a little girl soon after. He is under no obligation to speak on the shenanigans in the country’s capital or the state of the union today. But he built his brand by speaking on issues; issues in his community, in his life, in his career.
This stark change in artistic direction is surprising. The overt and aggressive pandering to the lowest common denominator with these sounds here is frustrating. Wale can do better than SHiNE.