MMG / Atlantic Records
MMG / Atlantic Records

Striving for greatness in your craft and feeling that you've come up short or have yet to receive the respect and appreciation that your talent or body of work merits can take a toll on anyone, let alone an artist. Baring your soul and sharing your innermost thoughts, fears and insecurities is a form of intimacy and vulnerability that's admirable, but when that exchange of energy isn't reciprocated, that vulnerability can become burdensome. Just ask Wale, who is among the more skilled lyricists of his era, but has lamented not getting the same cache and acclaim that is afforded to many of the very peers he came of age with and were once touted as the leaders of the new school.

As that class of rookies have evolved into veterans, Wale continues to attempt to crack the code that will ensure his ascent into elite territory with his fifth studio album, SHINE. The project is his first LP since his 2015 effort, The Album About Nothing, a conceptual collection of songs that saw the rapper at his zenith. SHINE finds Folarin in more of a celebratory mode, with the recent birth of his first child serving as one of the many reasons for Wale's upbeat mood on this album.

"Thank God," the first selection on SHINE, contains the first of multiple references to Wale's daughter. "I'm trying to get my daughter five McLaren/That feminist side come around when Zyla there/Quiet girl, kiss the baby goodnight and step out in riot gear," he rhymes over a grand, sample-based soundscape, courtesy of Cool & Dre. Featuring silky guest vocals from R&B singer Rotimi, "Thank God" is a return to the soulful compositions that have dominated many of Wale's albums. However, SHINE is a bit of a departure from that aesthetic, with 808s, synths and other quirks replacing samples and live instrumentation the D.C. native is known for.

Lil Wayne, who makes his first appearance post-emancipation from Cash Money Records, is present on "Running Back," a DJ Spinz-produced ditty, on which Wale muses, "I be with killers just coming home/They only hope is me and the Quran/They only wish is for a new chain/But they stuck up in the ankle bracelet," another allusion to the rapper's close ties to street figures in his DMV stomping grounds.

Speaking of his hometown, Wale throws a nod to a few of the more beloved rap figures among its locals on the aptly titled "Scarface Rozay Gotti." "Came down from the spot, my chains is on me/Money can't stop me, I'm in my glory," he spits, in a state of triumph and reflection. "I'm the only one to put 'em on, man/Solbiato hoodie with the Balmain/Sitting so close to the Cavs/Wizards game/I could intercept a whizzer from LeBron James," Wale continues, before touching on his humble beginnings as a budding star under the wing of Mark Ronson. Co-produced by Dreamlife and Go Grizzly, "Scarface Rozay Gotti" is the first standout moment on SHINE and is a hypnotic affair with plenty of replay value.

Having worn his Nigerian heritage with pride throughout his carer, Wale links up with Dua Lipa and WizLid for a little international flair on "My Love," a festive selection that continues the album's winning streak. Produced By Major Lazer, "My Love" includes an efficient verse and an addictive bridge on the part of Wale, but finds Dua Lipa and WizKid taking center stage on what has the potential to be a crossover hit single.

Although Wale goes for dolo on songs like "CC White," a conceptual offering that presents cocaine in the form of a Caucasian woman whose seductive ways led to the crippling of the Black community, deeming her as "the coldest white bitch this side of town," the finest moments on SHINE come in the form of collaboration. "Walk by, on fire baby can't douse it," Wale flirts on "Fashion Week," which pairs him with Bay Area spitter G-Eazy. He then connects with Travis Scott on the Nez and Rio-produced "Fish n Grits," the latter of which finds the MMG rep out of his musical jurisdiction and comfort zone. "Fish n Grits" may not tickle many of Folarin's core fans' fancy, however, the rapper redeems himself with the potent "Fine Girl," another instance of Wale subtly embracing his international roots by collaborating with fellow Nigerian's Olamide and Davido. Produced By Marcè Reazon, "Fine Girl" is a pulsating banger of the afro beat variety, with Olamide and Davido both stealing the show.

Attention to the opposite sex is further paid on SHINE via the Chris Brown-assisted "Heaven on Earth," and plays to Wale's strength as a purveyor of romance, but the project's most indelible inclusion is "Smile," its' closing selection. Produced By Pro Reese, "Smile" is an uplifting number that tackles the political strife and paranoia that has engulfed America, with Wale refusing to give into the madness. "I got my family and I got my squad/And as long as they got me, then I'll be just fine," he proclaims, before sharing his sentiments of the "possible bigot slash misogynist" that's currently holding court in the Oval Office. Complete with an impressive verse from Phil Ade and joyous wails from Wale's daughter, Zyla Moon, to end the song, "Smile" is everything that fans have come to love from Folarin over the years and closes out SHINE on a high note.

In contrast to previous albums, which were flush with conceptual risks, reflection and fiery displays of lyricism from a man hell-bent on being crowned as one of the best rappers alive, SHINE finds Wale in a subdued mood and playing it relatively safe. Masterful storytelling and poignant stanzas are replaced with catchy refrains and ad-libs, resulting in the album treading territory occupied by the trappers and ragers, but it's foreign land that Folarin navigates. For the occasional missteps ("Mathematics," "Fish n Grits"), there are multiple bright spots throughout that make SHINE required listening and a solid addition to his discography.

Five albums in, Wale remains one of the more mercurial talents in rap, with SHINE serving as further evidence of his abilities as an MC and a reminder of his lyrical radiance.

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