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.
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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.”
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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.