The Will of Wale

Homegrown rhymer Wale jumps to hip-hop’s major league

June 20, 2013

“Wah-LAYYY!” That name was the refrain of the D.C.-area-raised rapper’s 2006 go-go-inflected single “Dig Dug (Shake It),” which made Wale a local name to watch.

He’s been on a “no-days-off” hustle ever since.

“I ain’t stopped working in a year,” Wale says from the road after finishing radio promos for his third studio album, “The Gifted,” which drops Tuesday — two days after his homecoming show at the Howard Theatre. “I don’t know anything else but work.”

This is the moment he’s been working toward. For Wale, “The Gifted” is a career-defining release. “This is a historical moment,” he says. “It’s a make-or-break moment.”

Wale first stormed onto D.C’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 “The Mixtape About Nothing,” using “Seinfeld” audio interludes to set up socially conscious songs about subjects including fatherhood (“I gotta be a man before I can become a father,” he raps on “The Grown Up”) and how the N-word plays out in rap music and in real life (on “The Kramer,” a reference to actor Michael Richards’ infamous outburst at the Laugh Factory).

Since then, Wale has released several other mixtapes to high critical acclaim (2010’s “More About Nothing” 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, 2009’s “Attention Deficit”). Wale’s trip has been long and strange, but its destination was still uncertain.

Enter rap kingpin Rick Ross, who helped reboot Wale’s career by signing him to his Maybach Music Group label in 2011. They launched “Ambition,” Wale’s biggest record up to that point, the same year. While Wale’s signature style — verbosity, verbal acrobatics and sharp wit — didn’t change, his content seemed to. Gone were the considered lyrics of songs like 2008’s “The Artistic Integrity”: “They say I’m too nice to be a rapper/ The prerequisite is gun clappin’.” Instead, there was stereotypical rap misogyny: “I got a lot of b—-es/they got a lot of feelings,” goes the title track to “Ambition.”

There’s a lot riding on “The Gifted” for Wale — as a test of his direction and whether he will step up the hip-hop ladder. But he’s used to a challenge. He cut his teeth in a tough town for hip-hop, rhyming at house parties instead of rap battles. It’s why he keeps striving, he says; it’s as simple as “not wanting to lose, not wanting to let up.”

Of the future, only one thing is certain: “D.C.’s always gonna be home.”

On Writing: Wale credits his extensive vocabulary to growing up without television. “We didn’t have no cable, so I definitely would read a lot,” he says. “I would read anything.” He remembers picking up a biography of Malcolm X, not because he was interested in the civil rights leader, but “just to kill time.”

On the Record Industry: “We give out a lot of free music now,” Wale says. “It’s almost like a norm. You have to do it to survive.” These days, he says, albums aren’t about the dough but a shared experience. “I look at [albums] like movements,” he says. “I want people to be part of [what I] was doing right then.”

On Working With Rick Ross: Critics claim Ross (who guests on “The Gifted”) influences Wale’s music with a heavy hand. But Wale, who produced the record, sets things straight: “Ross gives me a lot of freedom to do what I want to do,” he says. “It’s been exciting to be able to work with someone so successful.”

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Fiona Zublin · June 20, 2013