D.C.’s Wale wrestles with fame and anxiety
He has a name for his fits, his rants, his nano-tantrums.
He calls them “Wale moments,” and he’s about to have one right now, pacing the green room in blue jeans and black socks, unable to decide which Nikes to wear on national television. “This is the kind of pressure you feel when you have an album coming out tomorrow!” he declares. A throw pillow gets thrown. Poof. A Wale moment.
It’s the first day of spring, and Washington’s first and most famous rap star has come to BET’s “106 and Park” to announce the June 25 release of his new album, “The Gifted.” He says it’s his best album, because he has to, but also because it is. As a rapper, he’s never sounded more agile. And as a curator, he’s never brandished more clout, landing cameo performances from Rihanna, Nicki Minaj and one patently uncommon guest, Jerry Seinfeld, who glowingly describes Wale as “a pure artist.”
But in late March, “The Gifted” is only half-finished, and the publicity machine is already humming full speed. The 28-year-old will spend the next 72 hours racing up and down Manhattan in various SUVs, grouchy and restless, dragging his feet through hip-hop’s most exclusive media corridors, giving interviews, playing them back in his head, wishing they hadn’t asked him about that, wishing he were back in the studio finishing the unfinished album he’s out here promoting.
The pressure is immense. And familiar. For years, he hustled to become the first nationally known rapper from the District. Today, he shoulders the burden of being exactly that. And with the uber-stars of contemporary hip-hop reminding him of how much higher he could still climb (“The Gifted” arrives seven days after Kanye West’s new album, nine days before Jay-Z’s) it isn’t clear whether Wale’s anxieties are the fuel propelling him upward or the sandbags holding him down.
Ten years ago, he had to squint just to dream about it — a soon-to-be college dropout with a big mouth, a short fuse and ferocious musical instincts. In 2011, his sophomore album, “Ambition,” premiered at No. 2 on the Billboard charts. In 2012, its taffy-soft hit single, “Lotus Flower Bomb,” was nominated for a Grammy. Today, “Ambition” has sold just under 500,000 copies, with 1.8 million individual track sales. Wale says he’s made $5 million from rap music. But “it ain’t about the money to me,” he says. It’s about getting from here to better to the best.
Backstage at BET, he’s dressing the part, riffling through a tray of Cazal sunglasses. “Biggie woulda worn these,” he says to his reflection, picturing himself as rap deity Notorious B.I.G. As his entourage scribbles out March Madness brackets, he ponders a web of gold chains and calls for a vote. Should he wear the tiny diamond-stippled Redskins logo medallion? Or the one bigger than a chicken pot pie? The consensus is both.
When his handlers pry him from the dressing room, his stress mysteriously cools into disinterest. “This is a big moment for me,” he whispers in mock-excitement. “ ‘106 and Park’! For the hundred and twenty-ninth time!” Then, he trots out for the cameras, soaks up the bright lights, pumps his fist to the studio audience’s devotional chant — Wah-LAY! Wah-LAY! Wah-LAY! — and smiles.
He’s a mercurial star from a mercurial city. A city jittery with growth. A city unable to shake its cultural inferiority complex. A city where dreams are hung on sports franchises whose greatness feels imminent but remains out of reach. A city so loyal to go-go music, few kids in D.C. even bothered daydreaming about having a rap career before his.
“We had nothing. Nuh-thing,” Wale says of Washington’s national hip-hop presence a decade back. “It seemed like having a black president would have been easier than having a rapper from here.”
He made it happen by learning to detonate syllables over tumbling go-go rhythms, parceling out personality through brilliantly syncopated rhymes. His punch lines were funny enough to make Seinfeld laugh. His metaphors verged on riddles, knotty enough to stump CIA code breakers. He speaks in staccato bursts but can rap in perpetual motion.
And along with West, Drake and a cast of others, he’s helped bend the shape of hip-hop itself. Instead of narrating what’s happening on America’s streets, his generation narrates what’s happening inside America’s skulls.
The morning after “106 and Park,” Wale’s head space seems tangled. He’s parked outside the tastemaking New York radio station Hot 97 in his manager’s Chevy Tahoe, tired, irritated and fixated on Twitter.
He’s been goaded into far too many “Wale moments” here, engaging with anonymous trash talkers, confronting his critics, shouting down the faceless digital mob that lives inside his phone at all times. He can’t seem to go more than two minutes without looking at the screen. He says he turns it off only when he’s recording or sleeping.
“I wake up every morning to ‘I love you, you’re the greatest’ and ‘I hate you and wish you would retire,’ ” Wale says. “I’m looking for a little reality in there.”
How different would his life be if he didn’t have the ability to know what millions thought of him at any given instant?
He doesn’t hesitate: “I think I’d be one of the most successful rappers alive.”