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Wale Is Just Making Sure You’re Listening

The brash rapper has occasionally let the conversation outside the music overshadow his work. He’s still got some things to get off his chest, but he’s also got a great new album, ‘Folarin II.’

Richard A. Chance

The Black Anchor tattoo parlor sits inside an unremarkable building, sandwiched between a black-box theater and a vacant storefront with a “for lease” poster plastered on its wall. The building’s black exterior stands in stark contrast to its immediate surroundings, and to punctuate that difference in attitude, a sign on the window describes the shop’s hours as “Whenever the fuck we’re here.” Since the pandemic began, the West Hollywood hideout has been open by appointment only. Inside, paintings of celebrities, including a portrait of Drake staring at an owl statue, line the walkway to a back room where I’m slated to interview Wale, a multi-platinum rapper and L.A. resident, who’s stopped by to get tatted before he heads to Atlanta for the Afropunk festival. It’s a mid-September day on Melrose Avenue, and the artist born Olubowale Victor Akintimehin is in the thick of a promo run for Folarin II—his seventh studio album, released Friday, a sequel to his popular 2012 mixtape—but he has some things to get off his chest, making Black Anchor the perfect place to fulfill his urge.

“The tattoo shop can be your therapist sometimes,” he says as he sits on a reclining chair.

Over the past decade or so, music has typically served as his therapeutic outlet, earning him major loot, a duet with Rihanna, an MMG platform, and a cosign from Jerry Seinfeld. But the pain he acquired along the way gave him little to help him cope with the rarefied air he inhabits.

He remembers his first trip to California, when he visited San Francisco in 2009 for a promotional stop to support his first major-label single, “Chillin.” He talks about how the Chinese food at House of Nanking perfectly complemented the strongest weed of his life, but more than anything, he remembers how he felt at the Mezzanine nightclub, when a sold-out crowd, 3,000 miles away from D.C., knew every word he rapped. “I was so surprised that they knew my shit all the way over there,” he says. His feelings encapsulate a longstanding conflict with adulation—he yearns for it, but doesn’t necessarily know when it’s going to come. “I think I’m one of the greatest rappers of all time,” he says. “But I don’t think that everybody has the same thinking cap on, and that’s fine.”

The first step to solving the Wale riddle can be traced back to the 1980s, when crack put a stranglehold on the D.C. community he inhabited with his Nigerian immigrant parents. Its rise led to increased crime, poverty, and overall urban decay. The drug was so omnipresent in the city that even D.C. Mayor Marion Barry was videotaped smoking it during an FBI sting in 1990. On one Fourth of July evening, someone dealing with addiction broke into Wale’s home while he and his brother played with sparklers outside the apartment. “Ever since then,” he says, “I never felt all the way safe.” He wasn’t successful at school initially, so he had to enroll in special education courses, often taking a district-sanctioned bus alongside other kids with extra learning needs, building even more resentment.

“I think I just got detached from people that I didn’t know as well,” he admits. “Somewhere along the line, my empathy got lower.”

So he unleashed his bottled-up energy on the gridiron. (“Barry Sanders without the big quads,” he quips.) His play earned him a scholarship to Robert Morris, and later Virginia State, where he was eventually kicked off the team after, he says, refusing to give full effort in a disciplinary drill after fumbling during practice. But he discovered his musical ambition at VSU. Each day, he’d kick freestyles at Foster Hall, honing his craft and achieving affirmation. “The guy that was across the hall from me in my dorm was like, ‘Keep going, keep going. You tight,’” he says. “People really started fucking with me at Virginia State.” He’d leave VSU and transfer to Bowie State before dropping out and focusing on music. In 2004, he released the single “Rhyme of the Century,” which garnered some buzz back home and helped land him a write-up on The Source’s Unsigned Hype list. Acclaimed independent projects—particularly his Seinfeld homage, The Mixtape About Nothing—would follow, and word of his talent eventually reached English DJ Mark Ronson, who played one of his songs on his popular internet show. After a brief bidding war between labels, he signed to Interscope Records and dropped his debut album, Attention Deficit, which included the Lady Gaga–featuring “Chillin.” The song hit the Billboard Hot 100 and put him on the national radar, but the experience exposed his inexperience. Reflecting on the song today, Wale says it was a mistake to release “Chillin’” as his first single—it doesn’t capture him as well as others off Attention Deficit—but he deferred to the label. “It’s a great song,” he says. “But I don’t think it shows people who I am. But I didn’t know. I just was like, ‘All right, I’m the first person from the DMV to get a record deal. Let me just do what I’m told.’” Soon after, Ronson got busier as his celebrity grew and Interscope began to lose interest, and by 2010, Wale was without a label deal.

“I just don’t think Mark was as into it as maybe [Interscope] would’ve hoped,” Wale says. “And I didn’t know what the fuck was going on.”

He soon signed with Maybach Music Group, the imprint headed by Rick Ross. His first release on the label, Ambition, was certified gold, exceeding the sales of Attention Deficit. His follow-up, The Gifted, did the same and hit no. 1 on the Billboard album charts, but it also led to one of the biggest controversies of his young career. In December 2013, Complex magazine omitted The Gifted from its top 50 albums of the year. Incensed, Wale called the mag’s New York offices, and, for the next three minutes, laid into the staff, before threatening “to come to that office and start knocking n----s the fuck out.” The next day, Complex released the audio from the call.

Wale has a few theories about why he was omitted, but the one he feels most strongly about was his fallout with friend Kid Cudi. During Wale’s rise, the two rappers were inseparable, appearing in and around New York together for events and showcases. When the two were set to perform together during an Air Jordan event, each was prohibited from wearing non-Nike sneakers. “Nike was like, ‘You can’t perform with Wale if you don’t have no Jordans on,’” Wale remembers. Except Cudi, a Bape disciple, didn’t own a pair of J’s. “My manager at the time got him the Jordans,” Wale says. “That’s how close we were.” But the two fell out after Cudi took offense to a line Wale rapped in his “Thank You Freestyle,” which references a fight in Toronto, prompting Cudi to call his former friend a “simple ass rapper” in a 2010 Complex cover story. Complex’s editorial staff seemed to prefer Cudi’s music over Wale’s, putting the Cleveland rapper on the cover more times than any other artist. The sequence of events gave the appearance that the magazine was targeting the D.C. rapper. Now, a decade later, after the two rappers have reconciled, Wale acknowledges his insecurity when reflecting on the 2013 incident.

“I was just so frustrated,” he admits. “I was like, ‘Yo, I’m being overlooked by so many people. And I’m really up there with people. I’m really friends with all the people that you say are great. And why are y’all saying I’m just OK. … What the fuck?’

“Grown-up me would be like, ‘Yo, bro, what are you doing?,’” he adds.

All of this underscores Wale’s need to be understood. When kids would tease him in high school, he could let out his frustrations on the field. Here, in the music industry, he has to use a different approach to prove his point, so he frequently turns to social media to set the record straight on what he deems misconceptions. Among his biggest gripes on the web is the criticism that he isn’t a fit on his current label, because his creative wordplay, subject matter, and his love for Nike Dunks doesn’t mesh with MMG’s street image. To that point: Two weeks after our conversation, he responded to a Twitter user who said MMG compromised his “real talent and creativity.”

In the parlor, I ask about this narrative, which he’s eager to take on. He says that despite his “hipster” image, he came from the same type of environment as most of his label mates. “I just don’t think [critics] knew where I came from,” he says. “I’m doing backyard shows when I’m 18, 19 years old. … I’m not in the streets, but I’m still with everybody.” But more importantly, his bond with the label’s CEO, Rick Ross, helped foster the community he was always searching for. The friendship started in King of Diamonds, a strip joint in Miami, after Wale got dropped from Interscope, during a time when the rapper would often be in the establishment alone, marveling at the dancers’ performances.

“I was in KOD dolo, dropping money on strippers,” he says. “And Ross was like, ‘I like this n---a. He’s crazy.’ He loved it about me.”

Their relationship strengthened when Ross provided a lifeline for Wale’s career and signed him to MMG in 2010. Though Ross is absent for tonight’s interview, Wale’s love for the mogul is apparent. He tells a story about the night they finished the first song for the MMG compilation Self Made Vol. 1, “Pandemonium,” and Ross gathered everyone in the studio together, including Wale and Meek Mill, whom Ross had signed in 2011, and performed an impromptu speech that was reminiscent of a legendary coach.

“Ross is Bobby Bowden,” Wale says with reverence. “Ross is like Lombardi.”

But no matter where he is professionally, he’s always been addicted to knowing how people perceive his work. Periodically during our conversation, his attention drifts to his phone. He says he uses it to interact with his fans, fact-check falsehoods, and, more than anything, remind people he’s still here.

“I just want to make sure that they’re fucking with me. I just want to make sure that they hear me,” he admits. “And sometimes if I get too quiet, they don’t feel me no more. They don’t hear me no more.”

But his success in rap as well as a budding film career—he’s slated to appear in an upcoming Michael Bay flick—makes it impossible for him to be forgotten. Plus, with J. Cole, Rick Ross, and Jamie Foxx featured on Folarin II, it’s hard to make a case that no one cares about him. So why doesn’t he just log off?

“I do want to get away sometimes,” he says. “I remember the first time I really did that, I saw a lot of certain things weren’t the way they were supposed to be.”

In June, he took a hiatus after he contracted COVID-19 and developed pneumonia so bad he had to be hospitalized. (“I remember being at Cedars-Sinai,” he says. “And I’m like, ‘Dear God, please let me make it back.’ Because I didn’t know, I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t do nothing. … I lost 20 pounds.”) A few months later, in the midst of releasing his latest long-player, he’s still wondering how the rap fans will digest him. Kanye and Drake both dropped albums during the summer, and Kendrick Lamar, who hasn’t released a new album in four years, appears to be preparing to drop something. When asked about where he thinks he stands in the current landscape, he offers an honest appraisal.

“I’m not Drake, I’m not Kendrick,” he says. “I can’t levitate out of a stadium. I wish I could. I can’t put every feature and their city on a big billboard. … But I care way less than I ever have in my life. It’s like, ‘Yo, if you fuck with me, you fuck with me. Cool. You don’t fuck with me, then don’t try to get into my shit later.’”

Disappointment has colored much of Wale’s career, from letting Interscope choose his first single to the label dropping him, and all the social moments in between. Even when he talks about one artist he’d love to work with, he braces himself in case it doesn’t come together. “One day, I want to make music with Tyler, the Creator,” he says. “I think we would fuck it up so crazy because we’re so different.” But then, apprehension appears: “I don’t even think Tyler fuck with me for real, but I know that he’s hip-hop.”

His latest album has all the qualities of a Wale solo effort: radio-ready singles with features from J. Cole and Chris Brown, the sobering thematic record “Light Years” with Rick Ross, and “Down South,” a record featuring Maxo Kream and Yella Beezy that flips the Mike Jones classic “Still Tippin’” into a suitable homage to Texas’s chopped-and-screwed legacy. But the LP is colored by love and Wale’s difficulty maintaining it. On “Dearly Beloved,” the ninth track of his latest album, he copes with losing an unnamed woman because he wasn’t mentally ready for a relationship, despite being deeply in love with her. The song seems to emphasize his current mindset about romance. When the mother of his 5-year-old daughter, Zyla, FaceTimes into the room to check on the tattoo’s progress, Wale places the phone in everyone’s face to introduce her to the assembled crew.

“I just be looking at her like a superhero sometimes,” he says. “Any woman that push out a baby, they deserve their flowers. Facts. Nobody will ever fucking know that pain.”

When asked whether he’ll marry Zyla’s mom, or anyone else, he pauses. “Got to be careful with this answer,” he says. “This is going to be on the Summer Jam screen.” Then he explains his detachedness: “I think once I started letting go of the idea of me getting married or me being like madly in love for the rest of my life, I started having more clarity and more peace,” he says. “I don’t look for that. Because I don’t want to get my hopes up for that.” But in the weeks leading up to Folarin II, he’s been making strides to overcome uneasiness, which explains our trip to Black Anchor. He’s here to get a tattoo of an image from Cuphead, an homage to the video game he frequently plays with Zyla and the promise he’s made himself.

“I always want to make my daughter proud,” he says. “And the older she gets, it’s like, ‘Is she proud? Is she excited about what Daddy’s doing?’ That shit be mattering to me a lot.”

As for his desire to please the masses? That’s a work in progress.

“I can’t make you love me,” he says. “I just got to make the music that I like and just have fun because I’m great at rapping.”

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