After torching Atlanta and Raleigh with fiery performances for his Shine tour, Wale is brimming with confidence. Instead of recharging on his day off, the 32-year-old rapper born Olubowale Victor Akintimehin was fulfilling press obligations — including a loaded conversation on Complex‘s Everyday Struggle — in New York City on a balmy Monday morning (May 8).
As he walks into the artist lounge of his home label Atlantic Records, the sometimes ill-tempered MC is beaming with joy. Throughout his career, the DMV rhymer has tackled criticism from his many detractors. In response, Wale used his musical talents to hush his critics. For years, he has strung together mainstream hits catered to his female fan base with songs like “Bad,” “Ambitious Girl,” “Diary,” and “Lotus Flower Bomb.” For him, encouragement is key, especially after becoming a father last year to his daughter Zyla.
Packed with a slew of summery vibes, including “My Love,” “Fashion Week,” and “Fine Girl,” fifth album Shine, finds Wale in a happier place. Unruffled by the first-week numbers for ??his newly released project (Shine sold 28,000 its opening week, according to Nielsen Music), Wale stiff-arms the elephant in the room while talking with Billboard, and gushes about the early success of his Shine Tour.
What’s the general consensus opinion been about your new album Shine?
Wale: As far as the tour goes, this is the most I’ve been able to perform every song off the album in my career. Ambition, Gifted, Album About Nothing, most I did was four. Then, I’d mix it in with the hits. Now, I just do 10 and [the fans are] really into the whole thing. It’s very satisfying for me.
On Shine, it sounds like this is the most relaxed you’ve been in a long time.
Yeah, I think I have the same energy now. It’s just like, if you don’t like it, it’s probably ’cause you haven’t really listened to it. Or, maybe, there’s a small percentage that just don’t like it. Nobody can tell me I made a bad album. I’m so confident in this album. I know the more people hear it, the more people they’re gonna be like, ‘Wow. That jawn is good. That jawn is amazing.’ I’m touring and my fans are getting me where I gotta get. Or, you know, people will stumble on it and hear it. But I know this album is special to me.
With you being five albums in, how would you rank your projects?
I can’t because they’re all just like a different emotion, you know what I’m saying? If you like the color blue, you got all different shades of blue. You can’t decide which one you like. It’s just blue. My albums are just like that. It’s a color that I can’t describe. It’s all the same — they just have a different hue to them.
You’re a new father to your daughter Zyla. How much of an impact did she have while you were making the album?
Moreso than anything. I’m just determined to stay in the studio and work even more, and not get sidetracked. Having her just makes me feel like I gotta go harder, and like I said, I’m on a mission right now. I’m on a mission to do what I gotta do for my career.
Zyla walked her first steps last week. As a proud father, how did you feel about her latest accomplishment?
I mean, she was getting closer and closer all of the time. So, when she did it, I was actually on the way to rehearsal. Her babysitter posted it and sent it to me. I was like, ‘Wow.’ Two days after the album dropped and she’s walking. The way it lined up was crazy.
What would you say is the most meaningful thing that you’ve learned about fatherhood so far?
Just patience. You gotta have patience with babies. No matter what, it’s difficult, but you gotta do it.
You have Power star Rotimi as a guest on your intro to “Thank God.” What about his skill set intrigued you to place him on the album?
We kick it a lot. We’re friends for real. We’re always working on stuff. We find different things [to work on], but we had the jawn and he sung it, “I was like [‘Wow’].” I don’t really look at him like an actor. I look at him like a friend. The same people that you’re actually cool with in the industry, you look at them like friends. Then, you realize that they’re famous or something like that.
I was always going that route for real. Last album, I worked with Ricardo Banks and Don Jazzy, but it didn’t make the album cut. It had too many records. But I did that on the album before, and two albums before, I did one. I got about like six or seven loose record releases with Wizkid. It was something that was inevitable.
Last week, a YouTube critic called you out for trying to bite off the Caribbean sound with “Fine Girl,” while you justified it as being African music. Do you feel that African music doesn’t get enough credit?
When you got people in that area of media not being able to identify [that kind of music], it’s kind of insulting to my people and to me. If you’re gonna call yourself a professional music critic, you should really be knowledgeable of what you’re saying. I was offended because there’s so many dudes from Burna Boy to Wizkid to Davido to Reminisce to Don Jazzy, and all these people are working so hard to promote this music and get this music to a national level, and you’re gonna sit up here and tell me that I’m biting from a Caribbean sound when I got real live friends that are busting their ass to make this stuff global? I’m offended. I’m really offended.
I think that was insensitive, too, because we’re generating revenue in Nigeria. Lagos is becoming a more popular place, and I think that has a lot to do with Afrobeat, the artists and the lifestyle that’s going on out there. For you to say that I’m biting from another one, that’s like saying they’re biting from another one. Our sound is original. I think that was very insensitive as a music critic.
With Scarface, it was shooting the “Limitless” video from the Folarin mixtape in Houston. Rozay was probably the day we did “Pandemonium” in the studio. Gotti was doing that record “Disqualified.” That was one of my good verses in the ‘hood. They was loving it.
Rick Ross previously mentioned his love for you rapping over trap beats like “Trap, Trap, Trap.” Do you feel like you’ll ever revisit that sound?
Ross wants me to. It’s funny you say that, because he says that to me all the time. He’s like, “Yo. You gotta get on more of these trap beats. You be killing these joints.” It’s just that I don’t know if I know how to pick them jawns for a whole album. Ross be saying he wants to pick them all out one day. So, we’ll see. It’s fun. It’s easy. I don’t want it to look like I’m doing too much in that lane. I’m a music guy. I like instruments. That’s just me, but I also love hip-hop. So whatever the beat calls for, I can handle it.
You teamed up with J. Balvin for “Columbia Heights.” On the record, you rapped in Spanish. How long have you been fluent with the language?
You know, I got a lot of Spanish friends that be in the studio. I just wanted to have some fun with that record and just do something different, man. That’s what it really is all about. Having fun with different stuff. I think that song got a lot of potential, too. Like I said, this album is unique.
I just feel like a lot of music is coming out now and it’s hard to really resonate if your roll out isn’t super flawless, but it’s cool. I made a great album and people are gonna find out, one by one. “Te Llamo,” “C.C. White,” “My Love,” “Scarface, Rozay, “Gotti,” “Heaven on Earth,” “Fine Girl” — there’s a lot to work with, man. There’s a lot to digest.
You mentioned “My Love,” which has radio potential. Can fans expect a video for the summer?
If they demand it enough, they’re gonna get whatever they want on this album, because that’s what it’s all about — the fans. If they demand it enough, they’re gonna get it sooner than they think.
Do you have a favorite verse from the album?
I’d say the “Thank God” verse or “Smile” first verse.
Why “Smile” first verse?
It just talks about being a black man in 2017 with the country in peril, but you know, I’m still trying to be optimistic about it so it’s important.
Oh man, just the access to a lot of things that we don’t need our children seeing right now. It’s too easy to get on the iPad and just stumble across something crazy. That’s scary.
If you can pick an NBA comparison based on your career, which player would you choose and why?
John Wall. He’s great. Everybody knows he’s great, but he’s underrated still. He’s great and underrated. He’s not brand new and he’s not old. He always feels like he got something to prove, no matter what.
Talk about the relationship you and John Wall have, especially with you guys holding down D.C. at the moment.
He’s doing his thing now, man. He’s focused and in the zone. He’s becoming a real sharp businessman, but [also] one of the best basketball players on the planet.
You’re 32 years-old now. If you could have a conversation with your 22-year-old self, what would you tell him?
None of this is real. As much as it looks real sometimes, it’s not as real as you think it is. Run your course, run your race.
Do you feel that you would have thrived in a different era?
I don’t know, because I’m sure all of those eras came with their ups and downs, too, so I guess we’re all right where we need to be.
With you being five albums in, how would you describe your legacy?
Consistent. Very low-key consistent. Maybe polarizing, but successful all the while.
On a recent tour stop, you said, “I could give a f–k less about album sales.” At this point in your career, are you more concerned about album sales, or quality of the music?
The fans. The fans. Quality of music and the fans. Numbers always fluctuate right now in this era with streaming and accessibility in media, and popularity. It’s all about the fans, and I hope that I can please my fans.