The last time Wale took the stage at SOBs in New York City, it was 2009. He was 1-year removed from the release of his breakthrough mixtape, The Mixtape About Nothing, which played host to the song that earned him his first national underground hit, “Nike Boots.” For those in the crowd 6 years ago, with that “Where Legends Are Made” slogan plastered in the background, the feeling had to be unanimous: ‘in a year’s time, this guy was gonna be out of here, so it’s a good thing I caught this show,’ which wasn’t entirely true.

A wealth of perceptibly good things–Interscope deal, Lady Gaga and Pharrell features, Roc Nation backing and the open support of hit producer Mark Ronson–did little to slow the freight train headed Wale’s way. Less than a year after Attention Deficit, Wale was label-less, had a commercial flop on his resume, and was searching for a way back.

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Photo: Mel D. Cole

Fast forward to last night, just a few hours before midnight, when Wale was expected to take the stage, a Bilboard article began making it’s rounds on the internet. “I want Katy Perry to not tell her security to move me out the fuckin way,” read one person’s pull-quote. It appeared on the surface to be one of Wale’s counterproductive Twitter rants, re-imagined in prose form, but the actual article was an interesting peephole into the complex persona that accompanies the DMV native, from his troubles with confidence to excessive drug use. If anything, those that took the time to read the story would see past the man notorious for having a foul attitude, and see a guy with real f*****g problems and no road map detailing how to deal with them–in other words, a human being. I kept waiting for Wale to “kirk out”–as they say in the DMV–on his Twitter account about the article, but he chose to channel his feelings about it in a different way.

When the lights dimmed at SOBs last night, and “Legendary” cued up, and Wale took the stage, there was a noticeable difference in his energy. I’d seen Wale once before, at Hunter College shortly after the release of Ambition, and I remember what my chief criticism of his performance was. He didn’t appear to believe in his own music. He was tentative on several occasions, and at one point I remember turning to a friend of mine and joking that he maybe wished he was anywhere but on center stage at the moment. Don’t get me wrong, he tore the house down, but I could tell there was an overbearing feeling that he just couldn’t shake.

 

3 years later, after he performed “Legendary,” and went into several other records, “Slight Work,” “Pretty Girls,” “The Deep End,” and “Girls On Drugs” among them, Wale seemed to be sure. About what? Well, only he’d know the answer to that. But as he transitioned into each record, telling brief anecdotes as to why and how he crafted each record–even the sappy ones some wish he’d never touched–there was an air of indifference. Not as if he didn’t care about the story he was telling, but as if he didn’t particularly care about how people felt about the fact that he chose to tell them. When J. Cole joined him on stage and reminded the crowd that his story–left “for dead” by a major after one album, re-signed a year later, Grammy-nominated and topping Billboard just a year after that–is one that happens once in a generation, Wale lifted up his right arm and flexed it as hard as he could, and let a smirk-smile creep onto his face as he nodded his head. Whatever he was sure about, it wasn’t something that he was going to let anyone discredit last night, or in the future for that matter.

Khari Nixon is The Source’s Music Editor, and he lives in Brooklyn. Follow him on Twitter.