A suggestion for any aspiring rapper: Turn the volume down a bit. Decibel gouging is fine for punk bands, but not so much for rappers, who live or die on the strength of their lyrics. How else can we judge Dame Fifty5, the opening MC Tuesday night at the Roxy, if not by his wordplay? By his lack of energy, then; by his monotonous setlist; by his guitarist, a Pete Wentz doppelganger in a Black Sabbath muscle shirt.
But these are not the concerns of a headliner like Wale – the words need not be intelligible if the crowd already knows them. Wale isn’t quite a household name yet, but he does have a shiny new album, “Attention Deficit,” and a breakout single, “Chillin,” with a chorus sung by Lady Gaga herself.
To see him live, though, is to realize how much credit goes to the team of producers – including Dave Sitek of TV on the Radio and Mark Ronson – for making that album so entertaining. Without their help, Wale is a decent rapper but not an exceptional one, with a tone-deaf voice and the usual sort of cocky charisma. To compensate, he crowded the stage with his posse, then crowded it further with a flock of girls from the audience for “Pretty Girls,” a rather uninteresting song held aloft by the guest vocals from Weensey of Backyard Band. It looked like a party, but it sure didn’t sound like one.
Having apparently resigned himself to a career based on hooks, his set consisted mostly of the catchiest tracks from “Attention Deficit,” along with a few too many songs that weren’t his own. It’s safe to say that a rapper who falls back on 2pac’s “California Love,” as ubiquitous in hip-hop as “Stairway to Heaven” is in rock, is a rapper who has run out of ideas.
This is truly disappointing in the case of Wale, the man behind “The Mixtape About Nothing,” which was inspired by episodes of “Seinfeld.” His career is threatening to become a cliche, if it isn’t one already: That of the exciting up-and-comer who sells his creative soul for a shot at mainstream acceptance.
He might want to take a look at Audible Mainframe, the second act of the night. This is a group with the kind of talent Wale should have, a six-piece band from Boston playing what could probably be called jazz-hop. Theirs was a set far more musical, far more dynamic, far more buoyant than anything else on hand that night, a full step above what passes for hip-hop these days.
And toward the end of the set, the band lay down their instruments for a few minutes, letting MC Exposition go it solo. He rhymed with such passion, such finesse – Wale, by comparison, appeared merely to be going through the motions. MC Exposition took rap back to its roots and made it surprising again, made it vital again, and then the band joined in again and it became something even greater still. Take notes, aspiring rappers – that’s how it’s done.
E-mail Goodman at email@example.com.