Wale & 9th Wonder
Back To The Feature
Mixtapes are strange beasts.They’re held in a different light than albums – new ideas painted over familiar canvasses featuring a variety of voices.Often, mixtapes seem minimally edited, as if they were rushed out as fast as possible without worrying about polish or shine.They are sketches, samplers, tastes of what may come to full fruition in the future.
But this form - which started underground and now rears its head in the mainstream – has started to shift its shape.More care is given to production, and many songs seem like they’d be right at home on a proper release.The line has become blurred.
Wale’s latest mixtape, Back to the Feature, blurs the line even more.
On the one hand, it’s definitely a mixtape.At twenty-two songs and clocking in around an hour and a quarter, Back to the Feature is a monster.It’s long, and slightly bloated, with tracks included on the tape that would certainly be cut if it were an LP release (“Say It Again”, “5 Minutes”, “Rather Be With You”).There are re-used beats, although fewer of them are familiar bangers.There are a couple monologues, including the opening to the record, in which Wale talks directly and casually to the listener - a clear delineation that this is not a proper album.
On the other hand, though, Back to the Feature could very well be an album.The songs contain some of Wale’s best verses to date, the production is tight, and the guest spots are solid.The album is a self-described return to rapping that doesn’t miss a single opportunity to construct a fly story around a nice hook.Chock full of verses, it seems like there is hardly a second of filler – every song is packed to the gills with rap.As for singles, songs like “Chillin” (ft. Lady Gaga), “Warwick Avenue” (ft. Duffy), and “Um Ricka” (ft. K’Naan) are as catchy and memorable as they get.
It is this combination of polish and nonchalance that represents Wale’s style best – an artist built and bred on mixtapes ready to break into the big time.Inch by inch, his flow carries him closer to a legitimate album, and Back to the Feature is the logical next step.It shows, more than any of his previous work, that Wale is not a one trick pony.He’s a talented rapper with a flair for pop tunes that serves him well when constructing his craft.
The Beast of the Beltway has once again knocked this beast of a format out of the park.“My weaponry is words/do re mi/the war’s in the form of poetry/so it’s straight C4 from the thoughts I bring/BANG” the album starts off, tipping the hand of the bombs Wale is about to drop.He lives up to his own hype, using an arsenal of poetry to reinforce his position as one of the premiere young rappers in the game.In contrast to last year’s great Mixtape About Nothing, Wale places emphasis on the lyrics and lyrics alone here – his voice is the most important instrument on nearly every track.I would imagine that a cappellas from this mixtape would be nearly as entertaining as the mixtape itself.
These songs are catchy as hell, but they occasionally bleed together in my memory.The tape is so massive that it took four or five listens for the tracks to even start sinking in.After a few more spins, some tracks started to stand out.The rhymes after the intro of “Wordplay” are phenomenal.“Wonder Why”, a track that slipped under the radar the first few spins, has an infectious hook.Wale shines on the minimalistic beat of “Rhyme N Reason” and sends the mixtape off into the sunset with a smooth take on Yael Naim’s “New Soul”.It’s a refreshing mixtape that doesn’t overextend itself.It showcases the extent of Wale’s capabilities, matching the output of his contemporaries without seeming forced or trite.
Multiple times on the Back to the Feature, Wale references the “Freshman Class” of hip hop, sending out shouts to fellow young rappers Asher Roth, B.o.B, Whiz Kalifa, and Drake, among others.It’s a bit of a startling reminder about how young Wale is.His verses sound remarkably mature, tour-wizened and game-hardened.But still, despite hinting at album potential, Back to the Feature is just a mixtape – meant to spin in your car this summer and get you pumped for what’s next.It does just that.The mixtape is a must listen for any hip hop head interested in keeping up with the youth.Let’s hope he can continue to step it up to the next level on Attention: Deficit, his forthcoming debut.