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Great Expectations for Wale
As his new album comes out, DC’s most famous rapper hopes the third time’s the charm.
Wale is amped. He’s pacing. Smiling. Talking with his hands, dreadlocks swinging. From out of nowhere, he’s come up with an idea so brilliant he can hardly contain himself.
“Niggas going to think I’m slightly losing my mind,” he says.
Wale and five others—a producer, a record-label executive, a cousin, and two friends—have gathered in a recording studio in Atlanta to brainstorm ways to promote his third album, The Gifted, due out in late June.
At 28, Wale (pronounced “wah-lay”) is the all-time top-selling hip-hop artist from DC, which is somewhat less impressive than it sounds, considering that the city is known for go-go and punk, not hip-hop. In 2007, when he was new on the scene, a Washington Post headline labeled him the great rap hope.
Six years later, he’s put out two albums and eight free mixtapes. He’s collaborated with Lady Gaga, Jay-Z, and Jerry Seinfeld, among many others, and his song “Lotus Flower Bomb” was nominated for a Grammy. He was featured on Waka Flocka Flame’s single “No Hands,” which went triple platinum.
But he hasn’t made the kind of smash hits that penetrate the culture like those by Brooklyn-born Notorious B.I.G. or Jay-Z. Wale’s first album, Attention Deficit, was a flop, and his label, Interscope Records, dropped him. His second album, Ambition, sold more than 480,000 copies but garnered eye rolls from critics. Some wonder if he’s ever going to bring the goods. Where’s the album everyone can point to as his tour de force?
Wale thinks he finally has it with The Gifted. He’s spent the last six months writing and rewriting lyrics, poring over beats, getting up by 7:30, and working late into the night, sometimes hitting multiple studios in one day so he can work on different parts of the album. Now, with the record nearly finished, it’s time to plan how to announce it to the world.
What if, Wale says, they walk into Flight Club, a shoe store in New York, and drop $35,000 on the entire stock of Air Jordan No. 3 sneakers? Every color. Every style. Every size. “Buy out the store,” he says.
The plan energizes the group.
“Let’s close the store down,” says Wale’s friend Sneaker Man Dan.
The black Air Jordan No. 3s are Wale’s favorite shoes. He logged long hours years ago working at the Downtown Locker Room in Prince George’s Plaza to buy a pair. Now he owns more than 3,000 pairs of sneakers. They’re stored by type—a room each for new arrivals, Jordans, Nike basketball, jogging shoes, and high-end and super-rare. He’ll often wear a pair of Jordans weeks before they appear in stores. Few have seen the collection, not even his manager, Rich Kleiman. “This is his world,” Kleiman says. “The history behind them. What they mean. How they can be accessorized. Who wore them. What was happening at that time. It’s how people collect art.”
What if, someone says, we carry the $35,000 into Flight Club in Louis Vuitton duffel bags? How about filming the whole thing? How about announcing the plan on Hot 97 in New York?
“Niggas gonna be like, ‘Wale’s back,’ ” the rapper says. “That’s what I want to hear.”
• • •
As the meeting wraps up, the conversation shifts to Wale’s afternoon appointment at a Boys & Girls Club, where he’ll make a surprise appearance before an auditorium full of teens in a financial-literacy program.
Wale is nervous. Instead of performing, he’s decided to talk. He’s cool under the spotlight when rapping, as if the crowd isn’t even there. But speaking comes less naturally.
“You’re going to see me sweating and being nervous,” he tells Shari Bryant, senior vice president of Atlantic Records. “It’s something I’ve been working on.”
First, though, it’s time for lunch. The gang climbs into three SUVs and heads to the Cheetah Lounge, a high-end strip club near downtown Atlanta. Well past lunch hour, it’s empty inside but for a few stragglers and a handful of naked women, one of whom dances languidly atop the bar.
Wale’s uncut video of the song “Bait” depicts a night at the Stadium Club in Northeast DC with a lot more frolicking and money-tossing, and strippers are a recurring theme in his songs. Most of his music, though, is aligned with the bright, lyrical, PG-13 side of hip-hop.
Some fans called him a sellout in 2011 when he signed with Maybach Music Group, a label run by Rick Ross, whose music revolves around sex, drugs, and violence. But Maybach offered Wale a rare second chance after Interscope dropped him, and he says that while he never considered himself a gangster, he wants his music to reflect the totality of life.
He raps about the drug game on “Dope Boys (Remix),” then about Washington politics on “Flat Out,” then he freestyles about good times over bright chords on “Sight of the Sun,” a pop tune by Fun.
Wale is easy to understand, his friends say—it’s all there in the music. “You get a little bit of education,” says Don Daniels, whom Wale nicknamed Sneaker Man Dan back in 2004 when they were selling shoes together. “You get a little bit of street. You get a ladies’ man.”
Wale’s music is often both thought-provoking and fun—he compares it to the TV show South Park. That’s what drew fans to Wale’s quirky Seinfeld-inspired The Mixtape About Nothing, which was downloaded 30,000 times in the first week after it was released, in 2008.
He’s also known as an emotional rapper. That’s in part because of his sometimes introspective lyrics but also because of his temper. He monitors his cell phone constantly and engages in frequent Twitter wars. His response to critics of his music: “F—- my haters.”
Says Wale: “I speak my mind. That’s what we loved Tupac for.”
At the Cheetah, he studies the strippers for a moment, then turns and taps Bryant on the shoulder. “Why are they in here?” he asks. “They’re not making any money. They just like the attention.”
Then he brings the conversation back to marketing plans—this is a business lunch, after all, and with pressure hovering over his new album like a storm cloud, it’ll take more than a few naked women to distract Wale from the tasks at hand.
• • •
When the entourage walks into the Boys & Girls Club half an hour later, heads turn and screams fill the hallway.
Inside a waiting room, Wale dribbles a basketball with Sneaker Man Dan, trying to allay his nerves.
“I’m a regular person,” he says. “I know a lot of people love being famous. I don’t like it. I’m just chillin’. YouknowwhatI’msayin’?”
Wale was born Olubowale Victor Akintimehin. His parents, a cab driver and a nurse, emigrated from Nigeria. The family lived in DC’s Brightwood neighborhood until Wale was 11, when they moved to what he calls a “bad” neighborhood near Shady Grove in Montgomery County.
Music played a big role in the family’s life. There were all-night dance parties and an African talking drum, which Wale and his older brother, Alvin, beat to death.
When the brothers were 11 and 9, they decided to start a band. “That whole year we talked about it,” Alvin says. “We had ideas and videos. It was real dumb, crazy stuff, but we were passionate about it.” One song was called “Do the Backflip.” Wale planned to backflip off the couch during the video.
They talked their mother, Emiola Akintimehin, into buying them instruments for Christmas—a keyboard for Alvin, drums for Wale. She brought them home and put the boxes next to the door.
But when Wale argued with a teacher and got suspended from school, his mother returned the drums to Sears. “I’ll never forget it,” Wale says. “At Christmas, my brother had a keyboard and I had nothing.”
Wale kept acting out and found himself at Mark Twain alternative high school in Rockville. He spent time around students who lived in group homes and had serious behavioral problems. “I wasn’t no animal, but I left an animal,” Wale says.
While at Mark Twain, he played football at Quince Orchard High School in Gaithersburg and caught the eye of coaches at Robert Morris University outside Pittsburgh. He received an athletic scholarship but in three seasons—2001 to 2003—played in just one game, logging a single carry in a win over Saint Francis. He majored in journalism and planned on a writing career if football didn’t work out.
During a spring-break trip to Miami in 2003, Wale found himself freestyling in a crowded commuter train. To his surprise, applause rang out. “I just really went hard after that day,” he says.
“I might have been discouraged if I thought about just how hard it was. I never considered failing.”
• • •
The message Wale plans to share with the teens today is also the message of his new album: that everyone is gifted. The record pays tribute to Michael Jordan, John Lennon, Jay-Z, Martin Luther King Jr., President Obama, Maya Angelou, and others.
“I want to motivate the dreamers,” Wale says. He feels that the music from this project will hit the listener’s arm like an injection straight from his own veins.
When the Boys & Girls Club announcer calls for him to take the stage, he complains again about his unease speaking in front of crowds. And really, what to expect from Wale as a guest speaker on financial literacy? Hadn’t he just been at a strip club? Earlier, he mentioned that he’s never written a check.
When he begins speaking, though, it’s as if he’s flipped a switch. He’s candid, as always, but calmer, softer, sharper. Professional. He tells the teens to look deep inside for their “gift” and apply it as he has.
“I wanted to look you guys in the face and let you know I’m a living testament to bringing forth your dreams,” he says, his voice smooth and mellow. “I come from a city where there’s never been anybody that’s ever made a record deal. And I made it to have a way to be able to feed my mother and feed my family and take care of home off it.”
His comment that no one from DC had ever made a record deal is an exaggeration, of course, but in the hip-hop world it may as well be true.
When he and Sneaker Man Dan were selling shoes, Wale would sometimes rap at the front of the store. “Everybody knew me and Dan,” he says. “We sold sneakers to every dope boy in northern PG County and MoCo. We were the ones dictating fashion for two years in that store.” Legend has it that during his 90-day trial period at the store, Dan never wore the same sneakers twice.
Wale had talent, but without the help of DJ Alizay, a former host on WKYS 93.9, his voice may never have been heard on the radio. Alizay, whose real name is Isaiah Johnson, was the hottest deejay in the area in 2003, and he shopped at Prince George’s Plaza—a lot.
The first time Wale approached him, Alizay shook his hand, but he never played the CD Wale handed him. Wale honed his approach.
“I have to be fresh every time I see this dude,” he recalls thinking. “He has to know I’m the flyest rapper in DC.”
The next time Wale gave Alizay a CD, the deejay listened to it. “He was just different than everybody else,” Alizay says.
Soon Wale’s voice was on the radio. Alizay took him to parties and handed him the mike, “to get his confidence up,” he says. He trained his protégé, just four years his junior, like a prizefighter, and signed Wale to a management contract in 2004.
But management didn’t suit Alizay, and the two ended their business relationship, with Daniel Weisman, who was based in Beverly Hills, stepping in as Wale’s manager in 2006.
Weisman sent Mark Ronson, a British-born producer and New York deejay, Wale’s single “Good Girls.” “I remember playing it and saying, ‘This shit is f—-ing dope,’ ” Ronson says. “And saying on the radio, ‘I don’t know who the hell this is, but we’re going to keep playing it.’ ”
Ronson invited Wale to tour with him around Europe in the summer of 2007, and they played before huge crowds at the Glastonbury Festival in England.
Wale signed with Interscope Records and performed on MTV’s Video Music Awards. Wale and Ronson worked together on his first album, Attention Deficit, which was to be released in 2009. Stardom seemed just around the corner.
Almost as soon as it got going, however, Wale’s career stalled. The album’s first single, “Chillin,” which featured Lady Gaga, didn’t make the splash they’d expected. “Putting that out as his first single was a mistake,” Weisman says. “It was too pop for him, and it wasn’t pop enough for pop music. It was confusing.”
When the full album came out, critics panned it and Interscope dropped Wale. Weisman and Wale parted ways.
“People were questioning whether he was capable of coming back,” Shari Bryant says. “It doesn’t happen a lot in rap.”
• • •
One night in April, Wale asks a sold-out crowd at the National in Richmond, “Tell me where y’all from?”
The audience erupts. It’s classic hometown call and response, a line borrowed from go-go legends James “Funk” Thomas and Rare Essence.
Wale shows his roots in other ways, too—he often rocks a huge gold Redskins chain and a Nationals hat, and he touts DC in nearly every song. He owns a house in Bowie and splits his time between there and Atlanta.
But Wale’s hometown doesn’t always love him back.
“DC’s a tough place to get love, unless you’re from DC,” he said in a radio interview. “It’s like everybody hates you here. The only black person that everyone can agree on is Obama.”
A constant theme among his detractors is that because he spent much of his childhood in Maryland, he’s not really from DC. Wale says the criticism comes along with being the first guy from the area to make it as a major hip-hop artist.
His aim is to become a legend, like his idol, Jay-Z. “Before, I was trying to get in the door,” he says. “Now it’s like, ‘I’m here. I’m among hip-hop’s elite.’ ”
Some of the friends and early supporters who helped him get through that door are still around. But DJ Alizay is notably absent; they haven’t seen each other in five years.
These days, Alizay plays clubs and hosts an Internet radio show. He says he’s tried to reach out to Wale and doesn’t understand why their friendship ended when their business relationship did.
Wale can’t explain it, either. He credits Alizay with giving him his start but says it’s just the reality of success. “Sometimes people don’t understand your vision, and they think it’s supposed to go a certain way,” he says. “Sometimes people may not have the patience. Or you don’t understand each other as you get older.”
Alizay has watched Wale’s career with pride. But he still thinks about what they could have been. They were, he says, supposed to be like DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince, traveling the world together.
“I’m happy for him,” Alizay says, adding that he wishes Wale the best with his new album: “I can’t wait to hear it.”
• • •
A few weeks after the Richmond concert, Wale walks into a recording studio in New York trailed by employees and friends. It’s been a long day—photo shoot, meeting with executives at Atlantic Records, recording sessions.
“I need coffee—black,” Wale tells a runner before taking a seat with Black Cobain, a rapper from Virginia. The engineer cuts on a song they’ve recently recorded. The chorus kicks in over a thumping drum beat: “Shout out to my f—-ing favorite stripper.”
Wale listens for a moment, then ad-libs, crooning “la, la, la” to the chorus. Soon he’s dancing, entranced by the drums. The smell of marijuana wafts through the studio, and Wale helps himself to a hit. The group discusses whether this should be a song for the album or a single released to the clubs later on.
Later, Wale and his staff will go to Brooklyn for an interview to promote the album. Then they’ll head to another studio around 11, where they’ll work with Rick Ross until 3 in the morning.
“We know it’s time to deliver,” Sneaker Man Dan says. “Third one’s the charm.”
Wale believes in the new work, but he’s anxiously awaiting the response from fans. “As much as I don’t want to admit it, my fans are the only ones that can hurt my feelings when they’re not pleased with what I’m presenting,” he says. “I want it to be perfect for them. I want them to have a different sense of pride in my music.”
And what if he misses?
Edward G. Robinson III (firstname.lastname@example.org) wrote about the Wizards’ John Wall in March.
This article appears in the July 2013 issue of The Washingtonian.