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."
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."
"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."