When Wale first started buzzing a few years back, he was seen as a member of hip-hop’s new class of cool. Just like Kid Cudi, Drake, and B.o.B, Mr. Folarin blew up after releasing acclaimed mixtapes (The Mixtape About Nothing and 100 Miles & Running) and fostering an alternative style that hip-hop fans who grew up on Kanye West were oh so ready for. He was signed to Interscope, graced the cover of XXL's Freshman issue, and got Lady Gaga on his first single. Everything was going according to plan.
But no plan ever goes according to plan. Things starts going wrong when Wale dropped his debut album, Attention Deficit, in late 2009 and sold a meager 28,000 his first week. For a while, his career seemed adrift. But then he got some unexpected help when Rick Ross reached out and signed him to Maybach Music Group imprint. With MMG’s debut album, Self Made Vol. 1, on the way—along with his sophomore set (he’s flirting with the title Artistic Integrity) on the horizon—there’s a renewed interest in the once promising MC. As the D.C. native gears up to become the star many once believed he would be, we sat down with him to talk about his upcoming Kid Cudi collaboration, his public perception, and why he wants to be known as the best rapper of 2011.
Interview by Insanul Ahmed (@Incilin)
How did you get cool with Cudi again?
Cudi just called me. He was like, “Man, I fucks with you man, you know?” We just had a real brother conversation. It was a long conversation but a lot of things needed to be said. Some of the things that he said hurt and I’m sure some of the things I’ve said or done probably hurt. The nigga told me what was on his mind and I respect that.
We handled it like men. That’s my man. We wouldn’t want to keep going on not being friends. I’m about to do my second album, Cudi is working on his rock album. We just felt like it’s time. Like, “Man, we used to be cool. We used to hang every day. Fuck all the bullshit.” We both had a little bit of turmoil in our lives, but we’re both in a happy place now.
We talk all the time now. We talk about what’s going on in life. The thing about me and him is we always talk about what’s going on beyond music. We always used to do that and now we’re back on that now. If you see our text messages, it’s like, “What’s up man? I just had a bad couple of days. It’s awesome man.” He’s like, “Me too nigga, I’m good though.” Shit like that. Cudi is my man yo. He’s one of my true friends in this game.
Will you guys be working together?
He’s going to be on my upcoming album. When we first got cool again, he said, “What have you been working on?” I said, “This song that I just got. You would sound good on it." The song is produced by this guy from France, Spiff TV actually brought me the beat. He recorded it from his iPhone, Ross’ producer mixed it down, and it sounds like a real song. He’s actually redoing the hook. It’s kind of a Camp-Lo vibe. I don’t want to call it what we say throughout the song which is, "Rolling, we rolling, we rolling."
Will you be on his album?
Nah because his is more rock-ish and he’s just in his zone right now. When Cudi’s in his zone, the best thing to do is let him be in his zone, and he’ll let you be in it when he’s not so intense.
Switching gears, you’re rolling with Maybach Music now. Do you worry about maybe alienating your original fanbase?
The music is the same though. ‘600 Benz,’ if you put that over a 9th Wonder beat or a Primo beat, I could rap the same thing. I’m trying to get my same message out there, but in a different way. ‘600 Benz’ is about aspiring. It’s about ambition, drive, and hustling.
My old fans know what I’m doing. I do records like “4 AM” [for my old fans]. I’m just a fan of music. I just like to participate in it all. I did a record with Stephen Marley and then did a record with Shawty Lo the next day. That’s just me. It’s hard to balance, but I just stopped trying to balance and I just make the music now. You’re either going to fuck with it or not. If you don’t, fuck you.
And that’s why I made a song called "Artistic Integrity" before, because it’s about what I want to do. I can’t give you the sound you want to hear because it’s the sound I want to make. If I want to talk about the fucking sex trade on a fucking Lex Luger beat that sounds "B.M.F."-esque then let me do that! That’s what I want to do. Just because I’m making a deep song about deep shit, it doesn’t mean I have to go be deep sounding.
I’m the deep-thinking, spend too much money on sneakers, member of Maybach Music. I’m not out there trying to do what Pill’s doing or Rozay’s doing. I am the deep-thinking, overly analytical–maybe sometimes emotional—but it’s that same emotional as ‘Pac for me. What they call emotional now, they call it whining.
I can’t say, "Oh, my community’s fucked up. The way they’re treating niggas is fucked up." They’re going to be like, "Shut up Wale. You’re whining." That’s just how it is. But I’m going to give you everything that I feel. Ross will tell you, I’m going to be honest like, “Yo Ross, I love this girl. I love her,” or “I got my heart broke by this girl.” I’ll tell the world whatever. It’s me.
You previously mentioned that “everybody knows the Wale saga.” When you look back on that now, how do you...
The irony in that is that everybody knows [the Wale saga], but the people that really know me, know that I’m just misunderstood. I always wanted to be this likable guy, but it’s like no matter what I do, I’m never going to be perceived as that. It’s just not in the cards for me. I’m a little awkward. I stepped off in the middle of the interview—not to be rude—but I just stepped off. I can’t control it. I’ll just leave. I almost want to get up there and holler [at those dudes over there] eating and come back.
I have a bad memory, I don’t remember everybody. I’m not good at that. J. Cole will remember everybody. People love J. Cole because of that. But I’ve gotten such a bad rap like, "Wale has a bad attitude." It’s not that. I’m just very to myself, I think 24/7, I don’t remember people, but I love the shit out of all these people.
I obsess over the Complex’s, the XXL’s, the RapRadar’s, the 2DopeBoyz. I obsess over their appreciation for what I’m doing because I feel like what I’m doing is great. When people don’t think it’s great, I’m like, "Why? How? We heard the same things?" And I just got the tag as "the guy who complains." It’s just, I’m very passionate.
The same way I defend my shit, I defend other music that I like in closed circles. And I’m also the dude who might flip out on somebody on Twitter. I’m a real person. That’s one thing you can’t say about Wale, that he’s going to give you a fake Wale. And I feel like one day my music is going to have that impact because I’m so passionate about my fans and about the genre.
It’s just so polarizing when you’re in it. It’s like, "How is niggas looking at us right now? Are we winning?" Sometimes when you’re winning you don’t even get to enjoy it because you didn’t even know you were winning this whole time.
Click next page to see Wale talk about being misunderstood and thinking the world hates him.
Do you feel like you’re winning now?
I feel like my fans are supporting me right now, and as long as they do that, I’m always going to be winning.
Was there ever a time when you felt like you were losing?
When 28,000 records first week came out, for that week I did. But then I realized it had nothing to do with my fans. It was a poor layout, like they didn’t put none out. Now we’ve flipped that into like 210,000 sold.
Do you still have that fear though? What if your next album does the same number?
Ain’t no fear because I know I’ve connected with the people this time. It ain’t going to do what Attention Deficit did, there’s no way. I could do that in a couple hours.
Do you have a chip on your shoulder?
I do have a little bit of a chip on my shoulder but it’s only in the booth. That’s the only place. Nowhere else. In the booth niggas think, “What? Put the beat on.” You’re going to hear it on the Self Made album. The first thing you hear me say is, “They trying to tell me I don’t fit up in this muthafucka/They’re trying to tell me I don’t spit up in this muthafucka/Cause Rozay be talking white, he thinks he’s Uncle Ruckus.” That’s the first line. That’s the first thing you hear from me and I fit.
You mention being misunderstood and you talk about learning...
Sometimes I wake up and think the world hates me. I feel like the industry might hate me. But that’s the mentality I grew up in because I’m black. I’ve been trained to believe the world hates niggas. It’s society. Like, being pulled over at church and being 14 years old? It makes you look at the police differently. There were times when I was in the front seat and they told me, “Don’t do nothing,” and they took me out the car, and they pulled the gun out on my man and everything. I’ve seen it all. I’m not bitter to nobody man. If I was bitter I wouldn’t even talk to a lot of them. I wouldn’t be doing no interviews.
Especially with Complex. I thought they were really trying to...I’m not going to lie, I was a little bit offended. I thought there’s a market that myself, Cudi, and a couple other artists helped. [We didn’t help it] survive, because Marc Ecko doesn’t need none of us. But I felt it was a company that we helped keep thriving. Them little kids in DC, they wouldn’t know nothing about no damn Nudies and no damn APCs and all that if it wasn’t for me. So I’m more or less the mid-Atlantic ambassador for the alternative lifestyle that Complex is promoting. We—and when I say we, I’m including myself and the niggas at Complex—are the people in the school that are like, “What the fuck is those? What’s that?”
But it’s also hard because most of the time the guy that was like, “Yo what’s that?” was the guy that knew about the Internet, knew about fucking mastering records, and all that shit before everybody. I was also that nigga, as well as a football player. They were two different people on the social ladder. And then you had the D-boys. I was all of those, I just never sold drugs consistently. So it’s easy for someone who is in our world—the Complex world—to be like, ‘I don’t really like him that much, because he doesn’t seem like he’s really in our world.’
Well Rick Ross is in that D-boy world...
Right, and they like me.
And the Internet world, they like you too.
In our world they’re fickle. They like me, but very conditionally.
Does Wale just want everyone to like him?
I did at one point but now I can’t because I don’t have a super big fan-base of any one type of person. I have a little bit from a lot of different people, black women, OG niggas that like that old Reasonable Doubt shit, hipsters, D-boys, ghetto girls, college girls, college dudes, the college crowd.
I feel like you have 10% of each group, instead of 100% of one group.
Is that ever going to work?
I’ve just got to keep making music man, and hope God sees me through it. It’s working. All my shows are packed.
Do feel like you fit in with Ross and company?
Listen, I’ve been around niggas like that my whole life. Rick Ross is an authentic nigga. Like, there’s certain things I’ve got to leave out this interview, but I know about Meek. He’s a street nigga, for real. These niggas is street niggas. I’m all about integrity. When they say all that shit about Ross it makes me mad because I know what he really is. I know how much he means to Miami on the street side.
Click next page to see Wale talk about being hurt by Complex.
You said you were hurt by Complex?
I was hurt man. Just because I felt like Complex was trying to perpetuate certain things. And it was a real part of my life. I knew I was going to be good, but I just didn’t know where I was going or what I was doing. That’s when you feel like your world’s crashing down. Imagine leaving your job, for whatever reason. You leave and you don’t know what you’re about to do. You just don’t have faith in your craft. Then your favorite publication and your brother seem like they’re like...it just felt real bad. Not a lot of things can hurt Wale, but that did. And no matter what I would have said at that time [of the Kid Cudi cover story], it would have looked like sarcastic or whatever. It’s a weird place in your life man.
You’re older now, so you can regroup. But you’ve got to keep going. I’m glad we got to do this, because I just want to build with Complex again. It’s a different me now. I’m not trying to compete. A lot of us were getting caught up in that, so we didn’t really work as much. Now everybody is cool because we know what it is now. We’re just happy to be around.
Were you depressed at that time?
Nah. I just didn’t want to do shit.
You didn’t want to do shit? That’s depression.
I wasn’t really depressed because I was still living my life, dating, and doing shows and shit.
What got you through that time?
The fans did.
Because you were doing shows and they’d still be there supporting you?
It never dropped at all. And a lot of people, if you do 28K it will drop. They’ve got more rich. The shows didn’t slow down. It never slowed. It was weird for us, we were kind of waiting for the big [dropoff], but it just never happened. And then the looks just kept coming in. We would do shows and I’d ask, “Is the quote going down?” And it’d be like, “Nah.” It’s like it never connected with the fans that I wasn’t selling records. That’s why I love my fans to death. They were the people who bought Attention Deficit. The people who bought the album are the people who went to those shows. It was a hard album to find. Very hard to find.
Do those same fans want you to be on Lex Luger beats, rolling with Maybach?
It shouldn’t matter. If you’re a real Wale fan, it shouldn’t matter to you. How can you tell somebody who to hang with? You know what I’m saying? Some of my fans may hang with fucking atheists and devil worshippers. I can’t tell you who to hang with. I grew up with niggas like Ross and them. They’re more like the people I grew up with than Mark Ronson. I might listen to Mark Ronson’s shit more than I listen to fucking Lex Luger’s shit.
But I hope the fans understand that the album's not going to sound like a hundred Lex Luger beats and Wale. It’s going to sound the way Attention Deficit meant to sound. It’s still going to have the great syntax. I still want to work with K’Naan. But you know how hard it was to get such and such in the studio before? Such and such ain’t no problem now. No problem. But this time now, I’m at the point where I realize I don’t need such and such. I could do my whole album with any producer. I’m so in a zone right now. When I signed with Warner and they heard my new songs, even they were surprised. They were like, “I didn’t know Wale was like that.”
I’m not playing. I want to be known as the best rapper in 2011. The best. I want to be the best lyricist. If you could read Wale's words, you could sing his words, you could fucking put them in braille, you’re going to know that’s one of the best fucking rappers of 2011. Wale emerged as the best rapper. I want niggas to be like, “Man, when it comes to spitting that shit, you’ve got to put Wale’s name with anybody.”
I’m going to always have money. If I stopped tomorrow I’d find a way to make money. I’ve always been able to make money. I want to be the best. Listen to “4 AM.” It’s another Wale on there. I’m evolving. Right before your eyes it’s evolving. I’m turning into something that nobody can really put a finger on. Ross told me the other day, he was like, “Dog, you are about to be one of the best rappers in the game, lyrically.” I believe in that. I don’t know if I believed in that all the way the first time around. I knew I was good. Now I know I can be great.
Where would you be now if you didn’t sign to Maybach Music?
We had some deals on the table. A lot, actually. A lot of other artists were like, “Yo, I can get you a better joint.”
What is your situation with Interscope? Did you get dropped?
It was a mutual thing. We sat down and were like, “How into this project are you?” The money was going to different little places. It was good. I love all of those guys: Jimmy, Andrew Flad, all of those guys. It was just time for another vibe.
So now when your album drops it’s like Warner Brothers and Maybach Music?
Yup. No Interscope. And Roc Nation still manages me. I just talked to Jay-Z today. I’ve known Jay for about six years and I’ve never seen him that excited for me, ever. He was like, “I just need you to know that I love your energy. I love your vibe. I love everything you’re doing right now.”