The latest issue of Billboard features an in-depth look at the partnership of Rick Ross and Wale, hip-hop's latest odd couple who joined forces on Maybach Music Group and have created a buzz online, on the radio, and on the Billboard 200 albums chart.
Wale knew his new album, "Ambition," would be successful.
He was absolutely sure his second effort would be crowned a classic. When he made the declaration, on the phone from his Nashville-bound tour bus weeks ago, it was a bit of a tough sell - considering his debut, 2009's "Attention Deficit" (Allido/Interscope), moved only 28,000 copies in its first week. (Total sales now number 200,000, according to Nielsen SoundScan.) Still, as he made his case, it was hard to not sip the Kool-Aid. Wale could "just feel it."
Fast forward: He's fresh off a nap in his Los Angeles hotel room days after "Ambition's" Nov. 1 release and readying himself for a performance on "Jimmy Kimmel Live!" Ambition opened at No. 1 on Billboard's Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart with 164,000 units -- and had it not been for Justin Bieber's Christmas album, it would've topped the Billboard 200 as well. "It's not surprising," Wale ways coolly of the victory. "I knew I could do it."
Olubowale "Wale" Falorin, 27, is as self-assured as they come.
The Washington, D.C., native, a high school and college athlete (football, track), started out by using his Myspace page to independently push his free mixtapes. The tapes, like 2008's critically acclaimed "The Mixtape About Nothing," were clever, ironic, intense and filled with everything from quips about retro Air Jordans to poignant lines about economic struggles-all this neatly wrapped around his hometown's go-go grooves.
Wale also performed at local clubs, and he'd already toured Europe in 2007 with Mark Ronson, which led to him signing to Ronson's Allido Records. Wale, known as a brash, entertaining performer, whether with a band or a DJ (or both), was part of a then-new guard of rappers like Cleveland's Kid Cudi, Pittsburgh's Wiz Khalifa and Toronto's Drake. And when he got in business with Jay-Z's Roc Nation Management ( Rihanna, Willow Smith), the assumption was that Wale would cruise to success.
But "Attention Deficit's" lead single, the frenetic "Chillin'" -- featuring a not-quite-über-famous Lady Gaga -- left many fans of his mixtapes confused. The album flopped. In 2010, Wale was quietly dropped from Interscope's roster. His manager, Roc Nation VP of management Rich Kleiman, recalls meeting with label co-chairman Jimmy Iovine. Kleiman says Iovine wasn't "willing to go to war for [Wale] again. I don't think Interscope met our expectations. Nobody worked [his second single] 'Pretty Girls.'"
But Kleiman doesn't remember Wale sulking. "Instead of spending [even] one day wallowing in album sales that were less than projected, or numbers that weren't nearly as high as Cudi or Drake, who were in his immediate class, and who he was grouped with, he hit the ground running and said, 'I'm going to work the shit out of this album.'" That he did, continuing to make videos for singles-on his own dime, according to Kleiman-and touring like crazy.
"[He's] an artist that -- with or without a hit record -- is able to tour and give a phenomenal experience," says Jesse Kirshbaum, Wale's booking agent of three years and CEO of New Universal Entertainment Agency. NUE specializes in "boutique talent" for college fans. But only a few dates on his Ambition tour are at schools.
"Wale's predominantly performing at large-scale clubs that hold 1,500-2,000," Kirshbaum says. "And he's selling the majority of them out in advance on most nights-even on days that are less attractive. Selling out Chicago House of Blues on a Tuesday is impressive. Selling out Los Angeles' House of Blues two weeks ahead is pretty impressive." On the eve of his recent album release, Wale sold out New York's Terminal 5 (without an opening act, save the tastemaker-favorite DJ Cassidy) - capacity: 3,000.
In addition to his 2010 "Attention Deficit" tour, Wale hopped on Atlanta rhymer Waka Flocka Flame's 2010 club thumper "No Hands" (Warner Bros.). The song went to No. 13 on the Billboard Hot 100 and has sold 358,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan. That big look, along with a sequel to his 2008 "Seinfeld"-themed free mixtape, 2010's equally priced "More About Nothing" (released through hip-hop blog Rap Radar), pretty much made him a hot commodity again.
The release of "More About Nothing" was celebrated with a sold-out concert (featuring a full band) at New York's Highline Ballroom. Roc Nation Records artist J. Cole (who recently debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200) -- Wale's partner with Melanie Fiona on the sleeper song "Beautiful Bliss" from "Attention Deficit" -- joined him onstage. The place was fairly on fire.
This was all accomplished without label assistance. It was all sweat-and social. Wale personally handles his Twitter timeline 24-7. He has more than 1.3 million followers and a million-plus likes on Facebook. Labels began courting Wale again. But it wasn't until a chance meeting with a rap heavyweight in winter 2010 that Wale found a new home.
Enter Rick Ross. The Def Jam Recordings artist was looking for acts to sign to his then-homeless Maybach Music Group imprint. Ross reached out to Wale at Delaware State University after a homecoming show at which they'd both performed. They spoke in Ross' dressing room, and then kept in touch afterward. "I was on his radar," Wale says. "Ross had the vision from the start."
Wale officially joined MMG/Warner Music Group in February. "Ross believed in him," says Joie Manda, Warner Bros. Records executive VP/head of urban music. "And when Ross came in and played Wale's records, I believed also."
Wale was heavily featured on Maybach's summer compilation effort, "Self Made, Vol. 1.," which has sold 183,000 copies, according to SoundScan. The track "That Way," featuring Ross and R&B crooner Jeremih with Wale headlining, was the set's last single but also seemed like "Ambition's" unofficial first.
Wale has good advice coming from all directions. "Jay-Z, essentially, is my business adviser," Wale says. "Him, Rich and [Roc Nation's] John Meneilly. I know Jay has a personal place in his heart for Ambition. I remember one time I was on the phone with Jay, asking him, 'What did I do [wrong]? What can I do differently?' He was like, 'Maybe you just didn't come with that single. You made a solid first album. But you didn't come up with that single.' That just added fuel to my fire."
"Ambition" is a concentrated effort, mostly stripped of big-name producers. It builds on Wale's go-go base, bringing a genre whose most notable hits are 1986's "Da Butt" by Experienced Unlimited and "Sardines" by Junkyard Band, screeching into 2011 with tracks like "Don't Hold the Applause" and "Double M Genius." Along with Wale's ever-improving rhymes, the album boasts several of those strong, radio-ready records.
"'That Way' is the biggest radio record of his career," Manda says. And it's no coincidence that his charming single "Lotus Flower Bomb" (with ByStorm/Jive R&B singer Miguel) also targets women. Wale has a tendency toward romance. "His marketing director Shari Bryant is super-serving his female fan base and making sure they know how great he is, and how he's speaking to them," Manda says. Wale credits the response to the single (which is No. 5 on Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs after seven weeks, making it one of the chart's fastest-rising tracks of the year) to its honesty-and his zodiac sign. "'Lotus Flower Bomb' is a real love song. It's no secret. I'm a Virgo. I love love."
Wale and Miguel met after Wale reached out to him on Twitter. "He had heard a song on my album called 'Vixen' and had an idea for a record," Miguel says. "Wale basically quarterbacked the whole thing."
Wale wrote the majority of the song's silky hook, with Miguel providing some "lyrical edits." But Wale was responsible for its orgasmic bridge, a call-and-response cooing of vowels. It's the part that women are most anxious to sing at concerts.
Wale's use of social media doesn't end with sparking creative partnerships through Twitter. He's also utilizing Turntable.fm as his "opening act" on the "Ambition" tour. Before shows, Wale fans gather in a Turntable.fm "room" - it's projected on a wall of the venue and they can virtually spin tracks. Elsewhere? Fans can use the app to "DJ" at the club. "I just thought it would be something dope. Social networking is important," Wale said recently to Wired.com. "Anything that's social and music combined is something I want to be a part of. I'm very hands-on with it." The project is Turntable.fm's first partnership with an artist for live events.
Among Ross' support, advice and the quality of "Ambition," Wale appears to be on a bright, new path. What may or may not be tougher to achieve is his goal of undisputed greatness.
"[Rappers] used to take pride in being the best or becoming the best. Now they just talk about who has the most swag. But who wants to be the best?" he asks. Wale really wants to know. "Come to the table with your albums. I nailed it this time. I'll keep busting my ass until . . . you're going to have to respect me. I love hip-hop so much, and I'm really a humble dude. We're all cocky inside our records-because that's how rap is."
Freelance writer Brad Weté ( @BradWete) is a former Entertainment Weekly and Vibe reporter.