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.”
On a Saturday afternoon in May, Washington welcomes him home with cloudy skies, warm and gray like the inside of a sweatshirt.
He’s taking a 24-hour reprieve from “The Gifted” to escort local welterweight Dusty Hernandez-Harrison into a boxing ring at the University of the District of Columbia, the campus where Wale’s parents first met.
Wale owns property in Atlanta, he sublets in New York and he tours constantly, leaving just a few months each year for the District, where he usually checks into luxury hotel suites like this one at the Mandarin Oriental in Southwest. When his road manager arrives from Maine Avenue Fish Market toting plastic-foam containers of shrimp and fried whiting, a room painted anyplace-beige suddenly smells like home.
“I’m getting my mambo sauce before I leave!” Wale says, and tugs a hundred dollar bill from the roll in his pocket, requesting seconds for the friends that keep pouring through the door.
They all call him Ralph. On Twitter, nearly 3 million followers know him as Wale “Folarin,” his mother’s maiden name. Put them together and it sounds like Ralph Lauren.
He was born Olubowale Victor Akintimehin, his family called him Victor and they raised him in a one-bedroom apartment on Peabody Street NW. One of his earliest memories of the neighborhood came July 4, 1990 — he and his older brother Alvin were outside lighting sparklers when “a crackhead came running out the building with my mom’s jewelry box,” he says.
His parents — Ayo and Doris Akintimehin, Nigerian immigrants who came to the United States in 1979, worked various jobs and attended the Celestial Church of Christ — became more protective of their sons. “I think all African parents are strict, though,” Wale says. “If you’re watching the news in the early ’90s in D.C., the mayor’s on coke. There’s a war going on out there. You ain’t going outside.”
So he grew up seeing the streets of Washington from the passenger seat of his father’s taxicab, fielding requests from the back seat and twisting the radio dial accordingly, soaking up whatever came spilling out. To prove it, he sings the chorus of Alabama’s 1992 country hit “I’m In a Hurry (And Don’t Know Why)” with a soft, sweet rasp.
Music made his world feel vast, but what he saw outside made it feel grim. He remembers a man, shirt wet with blood from a stab wound, trying to flag down his father’s taxi for a ride to the hospital. “It heightened my paranoia,” Wale says. From then on, he kept watch for the sentinel radio towers off Georgia Avenue, not because he dreamed of his voice being broadcast over them someday, but because they meant he was almost home.
When the family moved to Gaithersburg in 1994, he learned how to fight. “I didn’t deal well with people making fun of me or trying to get over on me,” Wale says. “Being a black, dark, nappy-headed kid when everyone was on the Tommy Hilfiger? I was light on the Tommy. Minimal Tommy!”
This is how Alvin, 31, a manager at a marketing agency in New York, remembers his kid brother growing up — cool, funny, outspoken. As teenagers, they’d obsess over the rap CDs Alvin bought from mail-order music clubs, sharing their discoveries with their cousins. (One cousin, actor Gbenga Akinnagbe, played Chris Partlow on HBO’s “The Wire.”)
But making friends was every bit as difficult as it was on Peabody. “We were the African family on the block,” Alvin says. “Spanish kids would try to fight us so the black kids wouldn’t make fun of them. Black kids wouldn’t talk to you because they thought they were going to catch something. And the white kids they bused you to school with, they don’t want to have anything to do with you.”
In middle school, Wale lobbed a rock at one of those buses and was sent to Mark Twain, an alternative placement school in Rockville, since closed. “That’s really when his mouth started to show,” Alvin says. “He wasn’t a bad kid, but he did things without thinking. . . . My mother was a very religious woman, and she would pray with him and try to get him to keep his cool.”
He simmered, graduated from Quince Orchard High School in 2001 and enrolled at Robert Morris University in Pennsylvania, where he played football, fought with his teammates and squabbled with his coaches. He transferred to Virginia State. Started going by “Wale.” Then to Bowie State, where he dropped out for the last time. Those fumbled football dreams still nag him, but today, life as a rap star feels a lot like life on the Quince Orchard track team.
“You can beat everybody at the high jump, you’re number one, but you still got that cloud over you that you could have done better,” Wale says. “There has to be a point where you hit that bar and you fail.”
Raindrop percussion. Falsetto curlicues. As the song begins to wake itself up, Wale manages to summarize its message before the beat drops: “Love you, then they hate you, then they love you again. . . ”
It’s called “LoveHate Thing,” the second track on “The Gifted,” and it’s been seeping from open car windows in Washington since late May. Its verses are populated with locals the rapper admires — friend and Wizards star John Wall, sports mogul Ted Leonsis, his mom, his dad, the ghost of Marvin Gaye — along with bittersweet ruminations on a home town that’s repeatedly bruised his heart. “You made me what I am, you made me what I’m not / They gon’ love you a little different when you at the top,” he raps.
“And it’s way more love than hate for Wale in D.C. right now,” says Angie Ange, the radio personality who’s been spinning “LoveHate Thing” on WKYS (93.9) for weeks. “As a man, he’s grown. And as an artist, he’s grown. We can’t keep judging him for how he was back in the day. . . . He’s really gone from ‘me’ to ‘we.’ ”
Five, six, seven years back, his “Wale moments” were more frequent, more intense. Just as he was beginning to win listeners around the Beltway and in the record biz, he was also earning a reputation for being hot-headed, pushy and impatient.
“He came into the game as someone who wasn’t easy to get along with,” says Peter Rosenberg, the Maryland-raised radio host now at New York’s Hot 97. “But as he gets more comfortable with himself, his audience is going to get more comfortable with him and I can see him becoming one of rap’s elite.”
Washington’s DJ Alizay first heard that potential when a still-teenage Wale approached him at Prince George’s Plaza shopping mall in 2003, clutching his demo. “In D.C., that go-go influence is so strong, I can hear a good rapper from a mile away,” says Alizay, who became Wale’s first manager. “He just stood out from everybody.”
Wale’s talent would make him prince of a ballooning rap blogosphere, and in November 2009, Interscope Records released his debut studio album, “Attention Deficit.” For the most part, the album quashed his quirks, then flopped, selling an abysmal 28,000 copies in its first week.
“I didn’t understand how to make an album at all,” Wale says today. “Not even a little bit. I was put in the studio with producers that Interscope put me with and I put out the songs I liked the most. It’ll always be my baby, but I didn’t know how to do” it.
Swaths of supporters in D.C. and blogland lost faith, while his detractors seemed to savor an abnormal pleasure in his failure. But once he escaped his Interscope contract, Miami rap pooh-bah Rick Ross swooped in to sign Wale to Atlantic Records through his molten-hot Maybach Music Group imprint. Wale says it was better than good luck — he “won the lottery twice and got struck by lightning on the way to cash it.”
“My mother, she told me I could be what I wanted to be, but there was no artist around that gave a blueprint for how to do it like Wale,” says Lightshow, a 21-year-old from Southeast. “He was the first artist to break through and give us hope that, hey, you could be a rapper from D.C.”
There’s another newbie Wale is bringing into the rap game — a guy from New York. His name is Jerry Seinfeld.
Back in 2008, Wale released a digital mix tape loosely based on a sitcom whose dialogue he considers scripture. Today, “The Mixtape About Nothing” stands as his geekiest, goofiest and perhaps most genuine bundle of songs. Seinfeld heard about it and agreed to meet Wale after one of his stand-up gigs in Philadelphia.
“I found him to be a nice guy and very dedicated to his thing,” says Seinfeld. “Then he said, ‘Why don’t we do something together?’ And that was so insane that, of course, I had to say yes.”
Seinfeld appears on the penultimate track of “The Gifted,” asking Wale when they’re going to record “The Album About Nothing.” In reality, they’ve already started. Wale hopes to have it out next year.
“The whole thing is hilarious to me,” says Seinfeld. “If he can really do this, if he can make this actually work, musically, I think it’s fascinating.”
First of the month. “The Gifted” drops in 24 days and his workdays are feeling 24 hours long. He’ll spend them dashing from radio interviews in Detroit, to club appearances in Miami, to video shoots in New York. Tonight, the big push begins with a radio sponsored “Summer Jam” concert in suburban Massachusetts.
His tour bus is filled with cousins, pals and proteges who will help him get through it all. Walker “Tre” Johnson — Wale’s hype man, collaborator and former singer of go-go greats UCB — gives the rapper a slap on the paunch. “You look like you picking up a little bit!” he says. Wale shoos him away with a fake jab and a muted smile.
“What’s it looking like out there?” Wale asks, wondering about the demographics of tonight’s crowd. “A little Peyton Manning?” Affirmative.
He anoints himself with four spritzes of cedar-tinted cologne and beelines from the bus to a pre-show meet-and-greet that will require him to drape his arms around the shoulders of umpteen giddy teenage fans. For each camera click, he stiffens his face into a practiced expression that manages to convey complete emotional neutrality. Then, after some chitchat with the radio station’s program director, it’s back to the bus, his gait a little quicker than before. He wants the most difficult part of his day to be over as soon as possible.
“Out there doing press right now, I get anxiety,” he says. “Not to sound crazy or nothing, but there’s mad white folks grabbing me. I just start getting uncomfortable. I try to hide it. . . . When I was talking with the program director, I felt like it went well, but in the back of my mind I was like, ‘I don’t think he likes me.’ ”
Wale says paranoia has followed him from that Fourth of July on Peabody Street, through the halls of Mark Twain, over high-jump bars, across a decade in the music business. He can’t explain why he feels this way. His logic is that he’s just more sensitive than everyone else. “Every artist is supposed to get emotional,” he says. “You’re painting pictures of emotions.”
Moments later, North Carolina rapper J. Cole finds his way to the back of the bus like a cool breeze. Wale has invited him to crash the middle of tonight’s set, and the reunited duo are instantly cutting up, swapping memories about the autumn they spent on the road opening for Jay-Z in 2009.
“If the show started at 8, I was on at 7:50,” Cole says. “With a 10-minute set!”
“I be right there after you!” Wale says. “[Everybody’s] got they popcorn.”
When they land onstage an hour later, it’s tough to tell who looks more elated to have made it all this way. Cole puts his lankiness to work, stomping around with giant strides. Wale coaxes his black Timberlands into a mini-moonwalk. But when Cole takes center stage for his solo turn, Wale recedes to the shadows, slipping his microphone into one pocket, snatching his phone from the other.
Purple lights throb overhead like incandescent bruises. Firing cameras make the amphitheater sparkle like some giant jewelry-store window. Thousands upon thousands are roaring in affirmation. And Wale can’t look away from the tiny glow in his palm.
He has everybody here. He wants everybody else.
Twitter: @Chris _ _ Richards