â€śWah-LAYYY!â€ť That name was the refrain of the D.C.-area-raised rapperâ€™s 2006 go-go-inflected single â€śDig Dug (Shake It),â€ť which made Wale a local name to watch.
He’s been on a â€śno-days-offâ€ť hustle ever since.
â€śI ainâ€™t stopped working in a year,â€ť Wale says from the road after finishing radio promos for his third studio album, â€śThe Gifted,â€ť which drops Tuesday â€” two days after his homecoming show at the Howard Theatre. â€śI donâ€™t know anything else but work.â€ť
This is the moment heâ€™s been working toward. For Wale, â€śThe Giftedâ€ť is a career-defining release. â€śThis is a historical moment,â€ť he says. â€śItâ€™s a make-or-break moment.â€ť
Wale first stormed onto D.Câ€™s rap scene with a stream of mixtapes; a push from mega-producer Mark Ronson helped those gather buzz. In 2008, Wale signed to Interscope and put out â€śThe Mixtape About Nothing,â€ť using â€śSeinfeldâ€ť audio interludes to set up socially conscious songs about subjects including fatherhood (â€śI gotta be a man before I can become a father,â€ť he raps on â€śThe Grown Upâ€ť) and how the N-word plays out in rap music and in real life (on â€śThe Kramer,â€ť a reference to actor Michael Richardsâ€™ infamous outburst at the Laugh Factory).
Since then, Wale has released several other mixtapes to high critical acclaim (2010â€™s â€śMore About Nothingâ€ť featured a track rapped from the perspective of Tiger Woods following his scandal) and albums that bordered on being total flops (most notably his debut full-length, 2009â€™s â€śAttention Deficitâ€ť). Waleâ€™s trip has been long and strange, but its destination was still uncertain.
Enter rap kingpin Rick Ross, who helped reboot Waleâ€™s career by signing him to his Maybach Music Group label in 2011. They launched â€śAmbition,â€ť Waleâ€™s biggest record up to that point, the same year. While Waleâ€™s signature style â€” verbosity, verbal acrobatics and sharp wit â€” didnâ€™t change, his content seemed to. Gone were the considered lyrics of songs like 2008â€™s â€śThe Artistic Integrityâ€ť: â€śThey say Iâ€™m too nice to be a rapper/ The prerequisite is gun clappinâ€™.â€ť Instead, there was stereotypical rap misogyny: â€śI got a lot of b—-es/they got a lot of feelings,â€ť goes the title track to â€śAmbition.â€ť
Thereâ€™s a lot riding on â€śThe Giftedâ€ť for Wale â€” as a test of his direction and whether he will step up the hip-hop ladder. But heâ€™s used to a challenge. He cut his teeth in a tough town for hip-hop, rhyming at house parties instead of rap battles. Itâ€™s why he keeps striving, he says; itâ€™s as simple as â€śnot wanting to lose, not wanting to let up.â€ť
Of the future, only one thing is certain: â€śD.C.â€™s always gonna be home.â€ť
On Writing: Wale credits his extensive vocabulary to growing up without television. â€śWe didnâ€™t have no cable, so I definitely would read a lot,â€ť he says. â€śI would read anything.â€ť He remembers picking up a biography of Malcolm X, not because he was interested in the civil rights leader, but â€śjust to kill time.â€ť
On the Record Industry: â€śWe give out a lot of free music now,â€ť Wale says. â€śItâ€™s almost like a norm. You have to do it to survive.â€ť These days, he says, albums arenâ€™t about the dough but a shared experience. â€śI look at [albums] like movements,â€ť he says. â€śI want people to be part of [what I] was doing right then.â€ť
On Working With Rick Ross: Critics claim Ross (who guests on â€śThe Giftedâ€ť) influences Waleâ€™s music with a heavy hand. But Wale, who produced the record, sets things straight: â€śRoss gives me a lot of freedom to do what I want to do,â€ť he says. â€śItâ€™s been exciting to be able to work with someone so successful.â€ť