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.”