Still, the public perception of Wale has threatened to overshadow his accomplishments. In his view, he’s been denied the respect he seeks. At the same time, he’s aware that his behavior contributes to that. But after six albums in 10 years on three record labels, he’s trying to let go of the past.
Wale is 35 now and more focused on valuing what he has than harping on what he doesn’t. He is who he is: someone who can be cagey but also someone who opens up as soon as he trusts you. Wale looks ahead with optimism, but for an artist who still feels pressure to excel and considers himself a perfectionist, being at ease is never an easy task.
It’s been that way going all the way back to the November 2009 release of Wale’s debut album, “Attention Deficit.” What was built up to be a landmark moment — the District’s first rapper to earn national attention triumphantly planting the D.C. flag in hip-hop’s fickle soil — barely registered at all. Although the album was well-received critically, it underperformed commercially, selling just 28,000 units during its first week. Wale still thinks about it to this day.
“Nobody could find it near my mother’s house,” Wale says in his dressing room ahead of an October performance at the Fillmore Silver Spring. “Not at the Target [in Columbia Heights], not at Downtown Locker Room. It took a while before you could find it; it was crazy.”
The album’s commercial underperformance shouldn’t be its legacy. True to its title, “Attention Deficit” was intentionally scattered when it came to topics and sonics. In hindsight, Wale thinks maybe it was a little ahead of its time, an album as misunderstood as its creator.
“I think the music business was in such a polarizing state at that point,” he says. “Songs like ‘90210,’ ‘Pretty Girls’ — I was one of the first people to put Gucci Mane on an album at the time. That was different, especially as a new artist coming with an actual go-go sample.”
Interscope dropped Wale in 2010, a turn of events he no longer considers a failure. “I honestly don’t think about it that much anymore,” he explains. “I kind of just bury it.”
Wale’s second album, 2011’s “Ambition,” released under Rick Ross’s Maybach Music Group imprint, debuted at the second spot on the Billboard 200. Some fans viewed aligning with Ross’s brand — brimming with drug-dealer boasts, opulence and thunderous production — as incongruous with the idiosyncratic style that made Wale a favorite of the late-2000s hip-hop blogosphere. As his profile grew, so did the instances of him warring with people on Twitter and the media at large because of criticism he felt was biased.
“I let a lot of that frustration get to me, and that’s what created this . . . whatever the opposite of a media darling is,” he says.
And so a narrative formed around Wale, eclipsing any discussion of artistry or accolades. “I think some people only pay attention to Wale when he offers his critiques on his place in the game,” said Brian “B.Dot” Miller, lead music correspondent for MTV News and co-host of Tidal’s Rap Radar podcast. “To me, that dissuades some from even giving his music a chance.”
Wale, along with peers such as Drake, Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole, Nicki Minaj, Big Sean, Kid Cudi and Wiz Khalifa, is part of a class of rappers whose ascent coincided with the rise of social media as a necessary marketing tool. This eliminated a barrier, giving the public a closer look at the every waking thought and action of their favorite rapper.
“I was in Australia, and it was me, DJ Alizay and my cousin Bo, God rest his soul, and we were on a boat doing some festival,” Wale recalls. “Q-Tip was like, ‘Back when we were coming up, we had XXL, the Source and album packaging.’ That’s. It. That’s all they had. Now, it’s a blog here, a blog there, a blog everywhere.”
The changing media environment made Wale more mindful of his words than he was earlier in his career, but it’s still nearly impossible to avoid minefields.
“If somebody asks, ‘Who’s your 10 best rappers?’ I’m panicking because I don’t want to forget anyone,” he says. “Someone asked me the other day on Twitter: “Who’s the five best rappers of your era?” I said Cole, Sean, [Big] K.R.I.T. — see, I’m doing it right now — and someone else. And immediately, people were like, ‘How didn’t you mention Drake?! You didn’t mention so-and-so!’
“And in my mind, Drake is already in his own world, but people are like, ‘You’re hating on Drake,’ ” he said.
An artist of Drake’s stature isn’t above criticism or ridicule. Drake, who’s been a meme for the majority of his music career, has been accused of not writing his own lyrics, while his rival Pusha T scored multiple online victories over the megastar just last year, exposing the existence of a secret child in a diss track and unearthing old photos of Drake in blackface. Yet these were minor setbacks at worst for Drake, a rapper who has reached such heights that he’s seemingly invincible — a standing Wale says Drake has earned. Meanwhile, Wale still gets dinged for every seemingly minor outburst.
“I probably lead the league, next to Drake, in the most undeniable records,” he says. “Like, ‘I don’t like this n----, but this song is hot.’ I have a lot of those, and if I were more likable, we’d probably be at Capital One Arena doing this interview,” he says, referring to the arena with a capacity of more than 20,000 compared with the Fillmore’s 2,000.
There might be no more perfect encapsulation of how Wale views himself. Drake, Lamar and J. Cole (Wale’s longtime friend), pack Capital One Arena when performing in the District. Drake has a festival in Toronto; J. Cole now has a festival in his native North Carolina. Wale fills the Fillmore Silver Spring for his New Year’s Day concert each year, but unlike his peers he’s not getting booked as a headliner at the premier venue in his hometown. He understands the limits of his fame: that, for all his efforts, he’s still short of a major personal objective. He understands he’s not Teflon.
“My armor? You can penetrate that with a slingshot because I’ve been an open book,” he exclaims.
Wale wishes he could be less accessible. He wishes he could have someone else run his social media accounts so he can disengage and spend more time with his 3-year-old daughter, Zyla. But he feels compelled to be present, whether it’s out of habit or professional obligation.
“I tried it twice, just to back off of it, and everything dropped. My ticket sales were low,” he says.
So how does Wale cope? How does he avoid spreading himself too thin, engaging with negativity or wallowing in it to the point of misery? How has he stopped numbing himself before meet-and-greets?
“I’ve got people in my life who sprinkle a lot of positivity in my world and don’t harp on it when I’m being negative,” he says. “They kind of empathize, like, ‘I see why you’re being negative, but let’s address it like this.’ So it helps. The mind helps the spirit, so I had to take a step back.”
After looking at things with some remove, Wale began pouring this newfound clarity into music. The result was October’s “Wow. . . That’s Crazy,” Wale’s first album on Warner Records since signing with the label last year.
“It’s about destroying and rebuilding and letting go of the stigma of ‘crazy’ or other misconceptions,” he says. “I’ve been trying to figure out how to be happy for years. I feel like I’m getting closer to it. In order for me to truly achieve it, I have to evaluate myself.”
Although Wale mentions therapy on the album (“Black man in therapy/ ’Cause white terror don’t sleep,” he raps on “Expectations”), and the promotional trailer features him in a mock session, he’s adamant that this isn’t his “mental-health album”: “I hate saying the words ‘mental health’ because it’s such a buzzword, and it comes with a lot of empathy, but it comes with a lack of empathy, as well.”
Instead, “Wow. . . That’s Crazy” is a meditation on life’s joys and rigors. It’s Wale’s celebration of black people — black women, in particular — through which he finds at least some peace of mind. While certain themes and titles (“BGM,” a.k.a. Black Girl Magic, for example) scan like he’s pandering to Black Twitter, they belie the album’s depth. At one point on the track “Set You Free,” Wale confronts his demons with one of the most efficiently self-aware lyrics of his career: “Self-loathing is my addiction.”
“I think this album is a good segue back into who he is as a person and the kind of content he wants to make and getting back to those core Wale vibes,” says producer and rapper Tone P, who worked closely with Wale as part of the production team Best Kept Secret and on his own.
But Wale admits he thinks about walking away from the industry that exhausts him all the time. He’s 10 years deep but isn’t certain he has another 10 in him.
“Is my heart going to be in it? I don’t know,” he says. “Because my heart has been in it all this time, but I’m learning more about the world and myself, and I enjoy film. I really enjoy writing. People think I enjoy the spotlight, but my true fans know I don’t really enjoy it like that.”
Maybe Wale will finish a book of poetry or one of his screenplays, or start a record label so, in his words, “somebody else doesn’t have to go through this.” Maybe one day he’ll headline a show at Capital One Arena but maybe not — a possibility he’s learning to accept.
“If I can’t, maybe I just fell short of my goals, but I still reached a lot of other goals,” he says.
Even if the personal validation Wale desires might evade him, there’s little question that he has achieved one of his initial goals — establishing the DMV hip-hop scene as a reputable pool for talent within an industry that overlooked it for years.
His success directed the spotlight toward the likes of Fat Trel, Shy Glizzy, GoldLink, Rico Nasty, Logic, YBN Cordae, Q Da Fool, Chaz French and so many others. In the span of a decade, D.C. transformed from a national afterthought to a scene overflowing with rising stars.
“Without Wale, you don’t have that,” says Tone P. “You don’t even have people just checking in to see what’s going on.”
GoldLink, who was nominated for a Grammy in 2018 and scored a triple-platinum hit with “Crew,” is quick to credit Wale for showing a path to D.C.-area rappers.
“Wale’s early success literally paved the way for people like me to even be taken seriously,” he said in an email. “So I would go as far to even say that he’s a visionary. I’ll never forget the ‘Wale From MD’ freestyle he did when I was in middle school and that freestyle ALONE, made it possible for every inch of the DMV area to be played on the radio.”