Wale wears his success like a too-tight suit: snug, but maybe a bit uncomfortable. The 28-year-old MC just scored the first number one album of his career but you would never know it to hear him. The Gifted could help turn the creative tide of hip-hop music, but after selling tons of records, Wale still feels like the underdog.
Six floors up at the Manhattan office of Atlantic Records, Wale says he’s not ready to celebrate yet. Just weeks after the album’s release, his team has carved a good chunk of his schedule to meet with members of the media, give interviews and, of course, talk about the album. In one of the best summers hip-hop has seen in recent years, it’s clear Wale wants his piece of the pie, and the narrative.
“Everybody tells me I have the hottest album of the summer to my face, but ain’t nobody going out on a limb,” Wale says. “They’re scared to embrace my joint the same way they embrace some other peoples’. It’s bittersweet. At the same time, people showed up to the stores and gave me my first number one. But I want more for myself. I try to do things that are unheard of in rap. I’m blessed. I’m happy about where I’m at, but at the same time, I also want to top some of my personal goals.”
Wale wants a little credit.
Arguably, The Gifted stands heads and shoulders above many of the year’s releases so far. On it, Wale shows exactly why he’s one of handful of young MCs preserving the art form during this current molly era of music. For starters, Wale’s skills as a lyricist are sharper than ever with his third album. And it is exactly that: an album, that rare, complete composition crafted to be played from track one to 16, with the production, lyrics and tone of each track bleeding into the next.
Released at the end of June, The Gifted racked up 158,000 copies sold in its first, according to Nielsen SoundScan, knocking Kanye’s Yeezus out of Billboard’s top spot.
Wale describes the sound as “new Black soul.” In fact, nearly half the songs feature singers: Cee Lo Green, Rihanna, Tiara Thomas. Newcomer Sam Dew croons in a style reminiscent of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On era on “LoveHate Thing,” The Gifted’s second single.
“Yeah, ain’t no love in the heart of city, that’s what they told me/Beef with over 100 ni$$as, don’t none of ’em know me,” Wale rhymes in the song’s first verse. He exorcises many of his demons on that track and others (“Vanity,” “Bad”). And if there’s one message consistent throughout The Gifted, it’s that of an ordinary guy’s struggle to navigate the pitfalls of fame.
Chief among those snares is the troll culture of which Wale often finds himself a target.
“It’s intense. It changed the way I look at the world,” he says. “It’s a trend to insult Wale, like that makes you cool on the Internet, and a part of it is because I respond. And the only reason I do that is because I actually give a fu¢k about that person, to want to talk and make them understand and explain my side.”
Wale’s Twitter mentions (@Wale) are typically littered with messages from users who think he should know just how much they don’t like his music. He’s says he’s used to that. It was news, however, when several tweets surfaced from other rappers, before then were famous, dissing Wale. The general gist of those tweets can be summed up by Odd Future’s Tyler, the Creator back in 2010: “That ni$$a Wale fu¢king fails and can’t fu¢king rap. I’m not hating…wait, yes I am. I’m hating because I fu¢king hate that guy,” he tweeted. The message recieved 2,269 retweets, and was favorited nearly a thousand times.
Despite the steady barrage of hostility he gets (arguably just for being a celebrity), it can be said that Wale is winning right now. He’s managed by Jay-Z’s Roc Nation management, signed to Rick Ross’s Maybach Music Group, and even has enough clout to pull in Jerry Seinfeld for a cameo on The Gifted. Not bad. Even still, Wale has a chip on his shoulder, and it seems he may never get over the insult of being underrated.
“My back has been against the wall since I came in this sh!+,” he Wale. “I was the first ni$$a to put mixtapes on the Internet at that rate with that hype and nobody processes that. I was your favorite rapper’s favorite rapper as a youngin’,” he says.
Born Olubowale Victor Akintimehin, Wale grew up the son of Nigerian immigrants outside of Washington D.C.—Montgomery and Prince George’s counties in Maryland. Coming from an area that had never produced a major hip-hop artist, Wale fought to garner national attention, and released five mixtapes before his first album. With artful rhymes and novel concepts (two of his mixtapes, The Mixtape About Nothing and More About Nothing, have a Seinfeld theme), Wale built a fan base and landed a record deal with Interscope Records, but that didn’t last long. The label dropped him in his 2009, after his debut, Attention Deficit, didn’t perform well commercially.
“I had to fight from that to get back where I was before and surpass even that,” Wale says. “Of course I’m defensive. Wouldn’t you be if you lost everything? Wouldn’t you be defensive if you were working to realize your dream, and you did everything they said you had to, and they still told you you’re not what they want?
“Of course you’re going to be on your toes. I kissed all the babies. What happened? They dropped me. So fu¢k y’all. I’m doing it my way now. I have a chip on my shoulder and every motherfu¢%er reading this right now would too.”
Doing it his way on The Gifted meant a hands-on approach to more than just his rhymes, but the production as well. Wale set out to make an album that was soulful yet aggressive, to use all elements of his favorites: Michael Jackson, 1990s R&B, Marvin Gaye and go-go music to craft an album that would push the boundaries of hip-hop and popular music.
“I want, when people hear the album, for them to feel my passion, my soul. I really took my time with it,” he says finally. “There’s nothing that you hear on the album that’s an accident. It’s me. It’s my thoughts. I’m just making music from the heart.”
Donovan X. Ramsey is a multimedia journalist who writes about all things social, political, cultural, financial and whimsical. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter @iDXR, or DonovanXRamsey.com.