Even with the success of his last album, memories of past defeats still haunt Wale.
Between headlining shows and nightclub walkthroughs, interviews and studio sessions, Wale doesn't rest much. On this spring afternoon, he's fresh off a brief nap he snuck in after a slew of morning promotional appearances at New York radio stations. But it's probably the only sleep the 28-year-old, born Olubowale Falorin, will get today: He's still feverishly putting the finishing touches on his third album, "The Gifted," due June 25 on Maybach Music Group/Atlantic, in Manhattan's Quad Studios-appropriately located in perhaps the most sleepless place in the world, Times Square.
"I'm just working," he says, adjusting his Houston Rockets snapback. "I don't have anything in my head that's like, 'Yo, chill out.' All I know is the studio. That's really all I do. I eat in the studio, I sleep in the studio. I'm just always in there."
But there's a bit more to his sleep deprivation than that. A unique kind of paranoia haunts Wale. Three years ago he was dropped from Interscope when his 2009 debut album, "Attention Deficit," flopped commercially. (It's sold 169,000 copies to date, according to Nielsen SoundScan.)
So now, whenever Wale thinks of letting up on the gas, fears of failures past make him reconsider. "That little voice says, 'You remember what happened?'" he recalls, referring to losing his deal with Interscope. "'Imagine how fast they'll get rid of you if this fails.' I have nightmares of that shit. That's why I'm on edge. I'm just trying to make sure I'm straight."
His comeback story began with a return to his roots. After landing a couple of local hits in his native Washington, D.C., in 2006, Wale first gained national attention through a series of acclaimed mixtapes, which led to a production deal with Allido Records-the now-dormant imprint founded by super-producer Mark Ronson and Rich Kleiman (who still oversees Wale's career as Roc Nation VP of management)-and, after a bidding war, his ill-fated recording contract with Interscope in 2008. So, when he found himself a free agent once again two years later, he went back to his wheelhouse, releasing "More About Nothing," a 2010 sequel to his "Seinfeld"-inspired "Mixtape About Nothing," a 2008 fan-favorite. That witty, impassioned set, paired with a featured verse on Atlanta rhymer Waka Flocka Flame's 2010 club-thumper "No Hands," kept Wale on the road touring and got his name simmering once more.
The heat soon led to a new deal, with rapper-cum-mogul Rick Ross signing Wale to his Maybach Music Group label through Warner Bros. (since moved to Atlantic Records) in February 2011. "His wordplay was superb," Ross says about why he inked Wale. "Once I saw the poetry side of him and the intellectual side of him, I knew that there was a space for Wale in the top rankings of the game."
Wale lived up to his new boss' expectations that winter with the release of his second album, "Ambition," which debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 with 164,000 first-week copies. The disc also spawned the lady-killing breakout "Lotus Flower Bomb," which featured Miguel on the hook. The song peaked at No. 1 on Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs, sold 620,000 copies and helped push "Ambition" to near-gold status (482,000 total sales).
Wale attributes the turnaround to Ross letting him take control of his career-a reversal of his relationship with Interscope, he says. "I didn't know enough about the industry to understand how they were marketing me," Wale says of his former label. "They didn't let me be me. [Now] I'm in control of my own stuff. Ross empowered me. He let me do whatever I wanted to do."
"Wale guides his entire project," Ross says. "He has his own vision and he executes it."
As Wale and Ross prepare for the release of "The Gifted," that vision is coming into focus nicely. The album's lead single, "Bad," has sold 482,000 copies, and is performing well on the R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay chart, where it rises 11-9 in its 17th week, down from its No. 7 peak on April 27. (On the Billboard Hot 100, it holds at No. 32, after peaking at No. 25 on May 18.) But the song has a darker edge that contradicts its radio-friendly sonics: Over the looping sound of bedsprings bouncing, "Bad" tells the story of a romantically damaged woman only capable of physical, not emotional, intimacy. And compared with the stars Wale's worked with in the past-Nicki Minaj, Ne-Yo, Ross-newcomer Tiara Thomas, who sung and wrote the track's hook, may seem like an odd special guest for a lead single off an album preceded by huge expectations.