A Few Words About This Whole "Wale Threatening Complex" Thing
"What would you do to have em' say your name? / See I promise I would never cop another chain / But the arms spent on these VS / Got me in that Complex page"
Wale, "Golden Salvation (Jesus Piece)," 2013
When Wale's now-infamous phone call to Insanul Ahmed of Complex first occurred, I doubt that anyone—including those in the Complex office—realized it was going to be a THING that ended up galvanizing the ENTIRETY OF THE INTERNET. I happened to be g-chatting with a friend who works in Complex's music department at the exact time the phone call occurred. She went from telling me that someone was screaming at her coworker on the phone, to her realizing it was Wale, to me making a joke about how maybe that's how Wale's voice sounds all the time, to us moving on and talking about other stuff. I then looked up Wale's Yelp reviews, and forgot about the whole thing.
The crux of Wale's phone call—that he felt so strongly that he should have been included on Complex's list of the 50 best albums of the year to the point where he wanted to beat the shit out of somebody because he wasn't—is, to me, both completely vexing while making perfect sense. On one hand, Wale has absolutely no need to give a shit. He's at the point in his career where critical acclaim has absolutely zilch to do with his success. He's ubiquitous on the all-important features circuit, and he's organically built up a loyal, rabid fanbase who love and respect his ability to maintain a unique style in mainstream hip-hop. He often makes bold production choices, and can be counted on to produce a joy-inducing banger every few months. These accomplishments are tangible and not contingent upon any one publication's opinion. Many rappers live and die by their ability to maintain interest on the internet, but Wale is not one of them. Rationally, he has no reason to give a shit about any list, ever.
Legally, Complex had every right to record and publish the call, and I applaud Ahmed for having the wherewithal to switch his recorder on while he was getting screamed at. At this point, no one is questioning that. Instead, the debate swirling around whether or not Complex had any right to publish the phone call and turn it into a news item hits at a greater issue, the true nature of music journalism. Is the function of music journalism to provide free PR to artists and help craft a narrative around their album? Is it to report the facts of what happens in the music world while providing context and insight? Is it to entertain an audience? Is it to simply generate hits for your website? In execution, music journalism can serve all of these functions. Airing out Wale's dirty laundry effectively serves as a check to those who argue that entertainment journalism need not be negative, that if you're not going to report something nice, you might as well report nothing. That's fundamentally dishonest—the music industry can be a fucked-up place, and not reporting that a musician did shitty a thing allows them to continue to do keep doing them, undeterred.
While it's true that accolades don't necessarily have any bearing on Wale's career, they do help reaffirm where he stands in the critical community, something he has every right to feel self-conscious of. In becoming an internet-proof pop-rapper, he essentially abandoned the blog engine that once loved him. While his popularity is due mainly to local acclaim in his hometown of Washington, DC, five years ago Wale won the hearts of the web was getting laudatory reviews on Pitchfork for his genuinely great Seinfeld-indebted Mixtape About Nothing. It must feel really weird for an artist to go from being a guy who had his reputation built by the internet to the dude who can't even crack a top 50 list. Wale systematically turned his back on the true-school underground, one Lady Gaga feature and shameless MMG signing at a time. He got the major-level success he'd been striving for ever since his days rapping over Justice samples about being the "face of hip-hop," but that success came with consequences that he might not have anticipated.
Ultimately, it's possible that too many music writers have interests in the business of music rather than the business of journalism, and it's led to Wale thinking he can just make a few calls and yell at somebody until he gets his way—he's tied to Maybach Music after all, and if he's upset, there's the possibility his publicist will be reluctant to offer the same access to Complex as they might another publication. If that's true, then that's part of a problem with the music industry at large, that Wale's phone call is merely a symptom of.
Drew Millard is the Features Editor of Noisey. He's on Twitter - @drewmillard