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  • 25Jun

    On Wale, The Rock, WWE and the “Corporate Championship”


    On Sunday evening, Wale Folarin – the oft maligned “son” of the Nation’s Capital – finally had the performance he’s likely wanted in his home market of Washington, DC for quite some time. In front of a sold-out and clearly excited crowd at the legendary (and refurbished) Howard Theatre, he performed for an hour, mixing in new tracks from new album The Gifted along with classic mixtape fare and hits from his two previous LPs – including “Chillin’,” “Lotus Flower Bomb” and “That Way” – plus his bars from his guest appearances on Tyga’s “Rack City” and his star-making turn on Waka Flocka Flame’s “No Hands.” However, to truly understand how Wale went from worst-to-first, let’s head into the domain of World Wrestling Entertainment. While there, let’s study Wale’s legendary corollary, The Rock – namely, the Rock as “The Corporate Champion.” In understanding Dwayne Johnson’s rise to fame, it provides the best answer for understanding how Wale has risen to success, and ultimately why he will flourish.


    In 1996, World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) was a company attempting to find itself. Hot on the heels of the company’s biggest run-to-date, Hulk Hogan’s admittance of steroid abuse ultimately struck the death knell on his WWE career, and the legend moved on to World Championship Wrestling. Instead of rehashing classic names, though, WWE decided to keep their search for new stars in-house; This led to the push to the forefront of veteran performer Steve Austin, and as well can’t miss, blue-chip prospect Rocky Maivia. The son of 70s and early 80s ring icon Rocky Johnson and grandson of 60s and 70s icon Peter Maivia, the 6’5″ 270 pound Dwayne Johnson-as-Rocky Maivia had the look, pedigree and in-ring tools to be a star. However, once entrenched in the company as the holder of the secondary, “rising star” denoting Intercontinental Championship, there were problems. The WWE fan-base did not take to this happy, smiling and eager-to-please Polynesian baby-face wrestler. There was something missing, some dishonesty in his presentation that led to fans chanting “Rocky sucks” and “Die, Rocky, die” during his matches. How, then, did Rocky Maivia become The Rock and ultimately reach his potential? By discovering himself, then ultimately figuring out how to mix that with blending that into a corporate machine.

    Wale has an eerily similar story. Early 2000s era hip-hop smashed head-first into the internet age with a frightening resolution. Album sales dipped, and many of the hottest of rap era’s stars moved into film, television, executive roles or semi-retirement, leaving the game in the hands of an unproven cast of young rappers who got hot with the rise of internet-friendly and blog disseminated mixtapes. Not rich enough yet to afford albums with enormous distribution but aware enough to make use of  developing technologies, artists like Wale ascended to the top of the mixtape game. Ultimately, with a perfect storm of key cosigns in that era like Fool’s Gold Records chief Nick Catchdubs, Hot 97 personality Peter Rosenberg and numerous others, his ticket to fame was stamped. However, Attention: Deficit – Wale’s 2009 mainstream debut – was a horrid mishmash of styles, the Wale fans loved on mixtapes certainly NOT the Wale trading bars and hooks with Lady Gaga. The album’s first-week sales of 28,000 copies certainly underwhelmed, leaving the then Interscope signed emcee at a crossroads before his career had even truly begun.

    Back in WWE, by 1998, Rocky Maivia had become The Rock. Initially a caustic bad-guy with swagger who proclaimed to the people that they needed to “know [their] role and shut [their] mouth,” his devil may care attitude and charismatic persona earned him the respect of the fans and a turn as a baby-face yet again. However, in a shocking move, at Novermber 1998′s “Survivor Series” pay-per-view event, The Rock shockingly joined with the evil characters of WWE boss Vince McMahon and his son Shane, becoming the “Corporate Champion.” Still handsome, smiling and gifted, he was still himself, but now a valued part of the corporate structure.

    Comparing Wale on Attention: Deficit to Ambition is literally akin to finding a link between apples and orange juice. To compare Wale from Ambition to The Gifted is difficult as well, as 2012′s $5 million earner on Warner Brothers/Maybach Music feels like an artist coming to terms with the notion that he is a) himself and b) part of an industry that is far bigger than him and demands specific and particular use of his considerable talents.

    The Rock’s run as the “Corporate Champion” in 1998 ultimately defined and refined his career. Eventually, as many times as The Rock could put down the people, it was in his most antagonizing (yet still begrudgingly entertaining) moments that he earned the respect and support of WWE fans worldwide. Similarly, for as many people seem to hate Wale’s spoken-word poetry, tempestuous outbursts and arguable general lack of an ability to show true empathy, it’s in those moments where he may truly define his stardom. In discovering his true self (in his infuriating ways) and mixing that with an immense corporate co-sign, Wale’s not a contender, but the champion. Now finished, I’m going to know my role and shut my mouth.

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