Wale was very excited for people to hear his new album, Shine—so much so that he released it a week early, to the surprise of almost everyone (including, rumor has it, folks at his record label, who were left without updated promo materials).
But Folarin’s excitement did not translate commercially, as the record moved just north of 25,000 units in its first week. During Wale's appearance on Everyday Struggle Monday, he addressed his career-long commercial ups and down, acknowledging that he's been "bitter" in the past, citing his angry phone call with Complex in December 2013. He also shouldered responsibility for Shine's first week sales, saying, "I didn't create enough awareness like I should have.... I put it on me, I don't put it on Atlantic."
Shine's less-than-stellar showing is just the latest bump in a long road for the D.C. rapper. He’s known the heights of success: gold albums, hit singles, critical love, and affiliation with the rap game’s biggest names. He’s also seen the other side: poor sales, label issues, feuds, and bad press. The one constant is Wale, who, as he'd admit, can be his own enemy.
But he started out strong. Wale’s very first song, “Rhyme of the Century,” came out sometime around 2004 (reports differ, with some placing it a year earlier, and some a year later). The tune quickly got a ton of attention and airplay around the D.C. area.
The success of that first effort led to Wale being featured in The Source’s “Unsigned Hype” column, which upped his buzz and led to more music (including a popular tribute to a local go-go hero). He eventually signed to a local label, Studio 43, for his 2006 mixtape Hate Is the New Love. That August, Wale got some serious love from the Washington Post (“A rapper by the name of Wale has figured out how to fuse a mainstream-friendly hip-hop sound with go-go in a way that could detonate a hip-hop trend branded with the three stars and two bars of Washington's flag,” they enthused).
In December, Fader came through to do a story on the rising talent. By the time it was published in March 2007, Wale was ringing out everywhere, and it was time for the big names to start swooping in.
The first of these was producer Mark Ronson (fresh off his Grammy-winning work on Amy Winehouse's Back to Black), who signed Wale to his Allido label, put him on tour, got him on a Lily Allen remix and the VMAs, and more. By early 2008, it was time to call in the really big guns. So, after a bidding war, Wale signed to Interscope that March for a reported $1.3 million. The stars seemed to be aligning for Wale.
But it was that very label move that sowed the seeds of the first major disappointment about Wale’s career. The first single from Wale’s debut major-label release, Attention Deficit, was a misfire: The Lady Gaga-assisted “Chillin’” was a commercial and critical flop, barely squeaking into Billboard’s Hot 100 chart at No. 99, where it hung out for a single week.
In a 2011 interview, Wale told Maryland radio station WPGC what happened, explaining that the label had been fiddling with the song until the very last minute:
“There was only one song funded, and [‘Chillin’] was the song that they picked. ‘Chillin’ didn’t sound nothing like that at first. They did the record industry stuff, saying, ‘Oh we really love the record. This should be your first single. Just change this, this and this.’ It actually got changed the day it was mastered.”
The single’s poor performance worried the label, and they shipped out far fewer copies of Attention Deficit than normal to stores. In large part because the record was difficult to find, Wale sold only 28,000 copies his first week. To this day, the album still hasn't gone gold.
By 2010, Wale had been dropped from Interscope and was no longer working with Ronson. He needed a way back into the mainstream, and it came via a rather surprising route: Waka Flocka Flame. Waka’s “No Hands,” featuring Wale and Roscoe Dash, came out that August and was a huge hit. It made it all the way to the top of the Hot Rap Songs chart, and its success gave Wale’s career a much-needed boost.
He rode that momentum all the way to a new deal, signing with Rick Ross' Maybach Music Group the following February. His first solo album with MMG, Ambition, was far more successful than the prior record, eventually going gold in 2016. But the album’s lead single, “Lotus Flower Bomb,” did even better. The song peaked at No. 38 on the Billboard Hot 100 and stayed on the charts for 20 weeks. It even garnered a Grammy nomination. Another single from the album, “That Way,” charted as well.
All of a sudden, Wale was back in the game. His 2013 follow-up album, The Gifted, debuted at No. 1 and went gold only a few months after Ambition. It also contained his biggest single ever, “Bad.” The song, featuring Tiara Thomas on the original version and Rihanna on the remix, peaked at No. 21 and lingered on the charts for a whopping 26 weeks. In 2016, it would join “Lotus Flower Bomb” by going platinum.
But this would represent a commercial peak for the MMG star. “The Matrimony,” the highest-charting single from 2015’s The Album About Nothing, would only reach No. 70 on the Hot 100. “The Body” did even worse, making it to No. 87 and spending only six weeks on the singles chart. The album itself debuted at No. 1 like its predecessor, but came nowhere near The Gifted’s overall sales.
Right when all of that was happening, it appeared to fans that MMG was breaking apart. Wale and Meek Mill had a very public falling out, which culminated in Meek saying that Wale was “not MMG.”
This bad blood may have played a role in Wale’s poor chart performance since. “My PYT,” which came out almost a full year before Shine hit the streets, spent a mere two weeks in the lower regions of the singles chart. “Running Back,” which followed, squeaked onto the chart at No. 100 for a single week before falling off.
So where does that leave us? Wale is a prodigiously talented rapper, and has come back from sales slumps before. Despite the drama, he still has the support of MMG, and as he explained on Everyday Struggle, he doesn't consider the album to be a flop since its helping him sell out shows; "My L.A. show sold out in six hours, so I know I'm doing something right," he said. If the music business has taught us anything, it’s that there's always room for a second chance—especially when you're willing to push forward and acknowledge past missteps.