Wale Can't Sleep, Nightmares of Failure: Read the Billboard Feature Story
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."Wale wouldn't have had it any other way," Kleiman says. "It wouldn't have mattered what anybody said. Obama could have called him and said, 'Take Tiara Thomas off the record,' and he wouldn't have done it."
Elsewhere on "The Gifted," Wale creates a soundscape more inspired by '90s R&B; cooing hooks from Mint Condition's Stokley Williams are weaved throughout. Like on Wale's early mixtape work, there are hints of his hometown's signature go-go funk: Cowbells clang and horns blow on several tracks, and there are lush musical breakdowns on songs like "Sunshine" and "Heaven in the Afternoon." The second single, "LoveHate Thing," recalls the contemplative soul of Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On" with moody piano chords, tempered guitar licks and falsetto crooning from singer Sam Dew. Wale, meanwhile, skillfully balances swipes at naysayers with a look at the bigger picture. "I'm trying to redefine the culture," he raps, his signature rapid-fire rhyme patterns as nimble as ever.
"I know what I'm doing in the studio now," Wale says of his approach on "The Gifted." "Before, I just knew how to rap. Now I know how to construct a song and make my music have emotions."
Although Wale initially eschewed big names for "Bad," he takes advantage of his sizable Rolodex with all-star appearances elsewhere on the album, from Rihanna (who's expertly placed on the "Bad" remix), a lady-pimping Minaj on "Clappers" and the smoked-out twosome of Wiz Khalifa and 2 Chainz on "Rotation."
But Wale says "The Gifted" doesn't have the commercial trappings that the hit lead single and the album's A-list collaborators might suggest. "I'm just trying to challenge consumers," he says. "Don't be corny and buy records off the single. Enjoy a musical experience that isn't forced, that isn't trying to insult your intelligence-like, 'This is the club record, this is the girls song.' Don't try to put it in a box, because I don't belong in a box. I just wrote music, man-just enjoy it."
According to Wale, Ross certainly is. "Ross is excited about it. He hasn't been to sleep yet," Wale says with a laugh. "He keeps texting me."
Atlantic seems charged up as well. Album promotion will stand mostly on the legs of a grass-roots drive, VP of marketing Shari Bryant says. "We want this campaign to resonate among everyday people," she says. The whole idea is that everybody is gifted in their own way." To that end, Wale is holding contests for "gifted" artists to open for him at three release-week concerts in D.C., New York and Philadelphia. He'll then embark on a national tour this fall.
Wale will also benefit from his endorsement deal with Skull Candy headphones, and the premiere of his own WRKNG Title line of knit hats out this fall (its website just launched). It's actually a relatively lightweight endorsement portfolio, considering he's a stylish rapper prone to dropping lines about Air Jordan and Nike sneakers whenever possible. There's even an album cut named "88," a shout-out to the year Nike introduced the iconic Jordan "Jumpman" logo. And both Ross and fellow Maybach Music Group signee Meek Mill have signed more prominent endorsement deals in the past (with Reebok and Puma, respectively).
"I've made Nike much money in my career," says Wale, who's wearing black Jordans and oversize Mars Blackmon-inspired glasses. "But I want to be consistent with my brand and direction: I don't want to be advertising with bubble gum or something like that."
"Nike's very supportive of him," Kleiman says. "We are working on some things to elevate that relationship."
In the meantime, Wale is already working on his next disc, "The Album About Nothing," a third installment of his "Seinfeld" series. He's three studio sessions deep with Jerry Seinfeld, and hopes to have other key cast members from the show participate. Longtime fans of Wale are delighted-including Ross. "I'm excited to see how it's going to play out," Ross says. "The way Wale is telling me about it, it sounds like it's going to be a fuckin' audio drama. That's what the game needs."
Somehow, between finishing up and then promoting and touring for The Gifted, Wale plans to release "The Album About Nothing" before the end of the year. Inevitably, there will be many more sleepless nights and unsatisfying catnaps in his future.
"I look at myself like a professional: I just get up and work," Wale says. "I just get up and work way more than a lot of other rappers. I literally go to work every day and try to record every day that I'm not on the road. It's too much-but I get good results."