The odds that faced Wale must have once seemed insurmountable. He was an aspiring rapper out of the Washington, D.C. area, a locale that, despite its proximity down I-95 to hip-hop bedrocks like Philadelphia and New York, never had a hip-hop artist emerge onto the national scene. Despite its legacy of go-go music, the propulsive combination of funk and big-band that led to national acclaim for groups like the late Chuck Brown and the Soul Searchers, R&B was D.C.’s main musical export. Dru Hill, Ginuwine and Johnny Gill all hail from the area, as does singer Stacy Lattisaw. But hip-hop had seemingly skipped over D.C. altogether and headed further south to places like Virginia and Atlanta.
The rap dreams of Wale—originally Olubowale Victor Akintimehin—one of two sons born to Nigerian immigrants, were conceived through the sounds of the ‘90s hip-hop his older brother brought home, but creating a viable career from it at that time and place looked bleak. He was raised by both parents in a one-bedroom apartment in northwest D.C. until, like many families before them, they moved on up to the near suburbs.
“Hard work, praying and not taking no for an answer,” Wale, 29, tells PW, naming the key ingredients of his success somewhere from the road, while he and fellow rapper J. Cole continue their “What Dreams May Come” tour. That outing checks into the Mann Center before heading down to Wale’s hometown for the “Rock The Bells” fest. “I come from an era where we just do us. We ain’t worried about the next city, the next person. That’s what I do.”
Still, Wale’s road to riches was one paved with disdain. Not only was he a rapper from D.C.; he was African—although in the end, it was the hustle mentality he inherited from his parents that helped him persevere. His father drove a cab in D.C, certainly not the easiest job in a city beset with violence.
“I think [my success] has a lot to do with my discipline,” Wale acknowledges. “It helped me to mold myself ... It made it easy not to succumb to a lot of things.”
Like many in this next generation of MCs, Wale, once a failed college football player, made his mark on the mixtape scene, eventually putting D.C. on the hip-hop map. A deal with Interscope Records soured, but Rick Ross picked Wale up for his Maybach Music Group, salvaging a promising career. With several mixtapes and three studio albums under his belt, including his current release The Gifted, which features a cameo from Jerry Seinfeld, Wale has far exceeded any expectations for a D.C.-based rapper—if not his own ambitions.
“I wanted to create super music,” he says. “I wanted to create something that was bigger than hip-hop. I ain’t want it to be something that you could put in a box. Go-Go was a big influence in my earlier years that I wanted to incorporate on this album.”
The Gifted is replete with live instrumentation and rhythmic beats that stand out in a world of AutoTuning and stripper anthems with thumps made strictly for cars and clubs. Wale, though, mixes it up, going from guest appearances with his Maybach crew and songs like “Clappers” with Three 6 Mafia’s Juicy J and Nicki Minaj to anthems like “Bad,” his opus to hook-up culture, with singer/songwriter Tiara Thomas. (Rihanna, his Roc Nation management mate, appears on the song’s remix). It’s an interesting LP from a male point of view, one that explores how young women have become sexually liberated to the point that they now initiate casual sex encounters just like men have traditionally. Wale has mined relationships before for musical gold. Another of his big hits—“Sabotage,” featuring Lloyd—is about love from a male point of view.
“My music is highly detailed about whatever I talk about,“ Wale says. “If it’s a relationship, love is like a common denominator. Everybody’s looking for it, trying to find it or has been there before. That’s probably why it seems like those are the highlights more than others, but all my music is just honest.”
Although he is among rap’s elite young guns—Wale was included among the artists Kendrick Lamar mentioned in his now-classic verse on Big Sean’s “Control,” on which Lamar vowed to lyrically annihilate his competitors—he’s not looking to be someone whose behavior should be emulated by his fans—or anyone else.
“I don’t think I’m—by any means—a role model. An inspiration, yeah, for people, to let them know that you can get whatever done if you work on it. Just coming from where I came from and getting in the situation I got myself in, it was a very, very, very once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that it even happened, you know? For that reason, I would like to be an inspiration to people. But I have too many flaws to be a role model.”
Wed., Sept. 25. 7:30pm. $39.50-$59.50. With J. Cole. The Mann Music Center, 5201 Parkside Ave. manncenter.org
A$AP Ferg is the Mob’s man of honor