Let’s just start with the main bullet point and then work our way into the weeds, Nike Boots and rototoms. Recently, Washington, D.C., rapper, fashion icon (I’m gonna give him these flowers) and sometimes oversharer Wale made this statement via Twitter:
“When I say I’m one of the greatest rappers of all time . I mean it with all my heart . I’ve put out more QUALITY music than most . My deep cuts are crazy . My singles all got plaques . Decade plus . THAT is why I’m heavy on the gratitude.” Let’s just add a (sic) to the entire tweet.
There’s a lot to unpack here. On Instagram and Facebook, I put forth the challenge to get a person—other than Wale—to make the case that supports this statement. A pretty lively and, honestly, enlightening at times, conversation spawned from it; several people made cases. So let’s start at the top: What makes a person the greatest?
This is one of those super subjective questions; if you ask 10 people you might get 10 different answers as to what makes a rapper “the greatest,” kind of like asking folks “What makes an album a classic?” Like, when I think of GOAT rappers—the standard issue lists includes, but is not limited to Jay-Z, Nas, Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac—I have to admit my own ’90s bias. But similarly, I understand that rappers like Kendrick Lamar and Drake (hate it or love it) are going to end up in these conversations when it’s all said and done. J. Cole, too. People argue about LL Cool J’s place on GOAT lists and he’s largely the reason we even have GOAT arguments. If LL Cool J isn’t a (or the) GOAT, then this conversation is almost a non-starter for the vast majority of rappers. Point is, this is a very subjective plateau, but there are a lot of rappers whose names get tossed in that don’t genuinely evoke much of a reaction short of, “probably.”
Wale both is and isn’t one of those artists—depending on who you ask—and it’s probably not fair. Let’s take a look at his career, which is probably longer and more impactful than most folks realize. He’s been around since the mid-2000s via the mixtape game. He has No. 1 albums, many top 10 singles (including one No. 1), song-stealing features, classic mixtapes and is an artist who, for better or worse (more on this later), most folks are familiar with. Basically, he has a career that the vast majority of rappers (musical artists of any genre, really) would covet, even rappers we “respect.” More people know and financially support Wale than most other rappers. I think that’s indisputable and clearly puts him in the “one of the greatest” camp.
Also, and this might be more controversial, I do think he did a lot to put Washington, D.C., on the national hip-hop map. He is clearly not the first rapper from D.C.; there were legions of D.C. rappers before him with varying levels of success. I know many of them personally. But I do think that he’s one of the first to wear D.C. so heavily on his sleeve and put the bullseye on D.C. in a commercial sense as a place of note. I think that counts for a lot. I also realize many might disagree with this; I’m willing to entertain all of those arguments.
Here’s the other side of the equation and where a lot of subjectivity comes into the picture: I don’t actually think most of that is because of Wale. I think most of his work is elevated because of either the beats or the features on his songs. Now, as was pointed out on Facebook, that speaks to Wale as an amazing A&R and judge of talent. He clearly has a great ear for beats (at times; there are some songs that I’m sure even he wouldn’t make again). But my issue here, and this is a personal one, is that I often feel like Wale, on those songs that he is putting together, is the least compelling part of the songs. Which is crazy because if you’re looking for a rapper who is heavy on subject matter and attempting to use his music and platform to speak about things, Wale is one of those rappers. And yet, something never quite curls over, for me at least. Based on the discussion had on Facebook, I am not alone.
Now, a lot of that for many people is that Wale has a reputation that precedes him if you’ve been aware of him for long enough. Wale has kirked out enough times where folks think he doth protest too much about his place in hip-hop and where he belongs. He is somebody who isn’t afraid to tell you that he should be more successful than he is, or that his work should be more revered than it is. He’s like Kanye in that regard, except for many folks, Kanye’s work has backed up the claims. I’m not entirely sure if the listening public feels the same way about Wale, chart hits notwithstanding. Like, he’s got jams, but I don’t think most view him as the transcendent artist that he thinks he is. Are any of his albums going to come in most folks lists of favorite albums? I don’t know. I can only name two of his albums. But that’s more about me than him; clearly, he has a fanbase who either “understands him” or think he hasn’t gotten a fair shot, either. Maybe it’s true, though I think it’s hard to claim you haven’t been given a proper look when you’re as successful as you are; it’s like Drake complaining about being successful. Like, what do you want? Like what spot do you think you deserve?
Two more things here: A very good point was made on Facebook—well many were but there are a few I want to zero in on. Somebody pointed out that if you can’t be your own biggest cheerleader why should anybody else. And that’s fair; I do think that you should believe in yourself, especially in the creative arts. One of my favorite lines from Phife Dawg from A Tribe Called Quest was when he said that, “...and if I ever went solo, my favorite emcee would be me....” on “Clap Your Hands” from 1993's indisputable classic, Midnight Marauders. Hip-hop is a contact sport; every rapper thinks they’re the best to ever do it and most tell you at least once or twice in song and will tell you in-person if they were famous enough for anybody to ever ask. Wale calling himself one of the greatest is really just par the course for the job. I think we forget that sometimes. Lil Wayne used to tell us all the time that he was the best rapper alive; Jay spent an entire career telling us that. Nas, on the other hand, was more inclined to let the streets say it and then kind of stand back and accept the accolade when it came. Different strokes. Where I think this impacts Wale negatively is that he has turned off so many people that it’s hard to see past the prickliness to really give him a fair shake, so maybe he’s right. The Game has this problem; he’s become known for so much more shit than his actual skill set that very few people are ever going to give him the credit for being the top-tier lyricist that he is. That is an enemy of their own making. Should it be held against them when evaluating their rap career? No. Will it be held against them? Absolutely.
Another person pointed out that calling yourself one of the greatest is like wearing a “World’s Greatest Dad” T-shirt. I have a few of those. I’ve never bought one myself, I wouldn’t wear it unless my kids gave it to me. Which gets to another point about this debate: you can toss the label out there, but I don’t know that artists get to assess their greatness for themselves. I can say all day long that I’m the greatest writer to ever do it (I know this isn’t true by the way, self-awareness is something I own in spades) but if the consumers don’t feel that way, then it’s a moot point. You can call yourself great and some folks will disagree but I mean, his career speaks for itself. But once you go into the “greatest of all time” territory, the door gets opened to a tremendous amount of scrutiny about that successful career.
Where does Wale stand in this? Well for me I actually—now—think he does have a fairly compelling argument if you take the totality of his career into account. One of the greatest of all time is a statement that is heavily inclusive of the entire rap landscape, which has included thousands and thousands of rappers who have released albums and records and Wale might be a top 100 emcee, which puts him in somewhat rare air. Using that metric, perhaps Wale has a case. While it would be awesome if the rest of us would make it for him, it seems that’s his biggest issue; nobody ever seems to do so, which begs the question of why? Can you be one of the greats if you have to remind folks that you are? I think so. Sometimes we all need help realizing it.
But the bigger question is why do people need help realizing it considering his resume?
That’s the question that needs answering right there.