Wale watch: The D.C. rapper on the blog age, Twitter and his debut album 'Attention Deficit'
Wale is exhausted. Bivouacked in a lounge across the street from Interscope’s Santa Monica headquarters, the Washington, D.C., native wears a countenance of weary resignation, preparing for the first in a seemingly never-ending string of interviews. When I tell him that I’ll try not to ask the same stupid questions, he exhales a sigh a relief.
It’s enough for the dreadlocked 25-year-old to handle the rigors of opening for Jay-Z and N.E.R.D. at sold-out arenas across America (as he’s been done for the last several weeks), but he’s simultaneously in breakneck promotional mode in advance of the release of “Attention Deficit,” his official debut that drops Tuesday. Accordingly, he’s frantically checking his phone, Twittering and trying to stay sane, knowing too well that judgment day looms a week away.
The problem is that Wale might be built for the old industry model. A complex craftsman in a fast-food rap world that rewards simplicity and prolificacy, Wale is trapped between binaries. Arguably the most buzzed-about rapper to emerge out of the blogosphere’s tower of babble, he’s acutely aware that to achieve commercial success outside of the Internet bubble, he needs a radio hit. But as he readily admits, “I’m not a radio artist yet.” So in a bid to earn visibility, he collaborated with Lady Gaga and Gucci Mane for his first two singles, alienating many of the purists in his vociferous fan base.
Compounding the disappointment was that neither cut caught fire, though the Gaga-aided “Chillin” has nearly gone gold. Moreover, “Attention Deficit” is riddled with commercial compromises that were absent on the free giveaways he made his name on: the outstanding “100 Miles and Running” and the “The Mixtape About Nothing,” a “Seinfeld”-themed opus that shifted people’s paradigm of what to expect from a mix tape. But in spite of the myriad hoops that the corporate brass forced him to jump through, Wale has delivered the strongest debut yet of XXL’s much ballyhooed Freshman 10 class (Kid Cudi, Asher Roth, Charles Hamilton, et al), one that augurs well for a lengthy and successful career.
In advance of his show Sunday night (with Jay-Z, N.E.R.D. and J. Cole), Pop & Hiss spoke to Wale about the difficulties of getting to release a major-label rap album in 2009, the negativity and fickleness of the blog age, and why he Twitters so much.
Like many of the more blog-buzzed rappers, you’ve been subject to a lot of rumors, beefs real or fabricated, and a level of media attention that rappers a generation ago may have had to face, but certainly not on as large of a scale. Has this been a difficult thing for you to cope with?
Q-Tip once told me that 15 years ago, all people had to judge you on was your album, one or two interviews, your record for the radio and the picture on the album cover. That’s it. The only way you can remain relevant is to give yourself up, unless you’re blessed to be in one of those every-once-in-a-while Drake situations. But that’s not even a once-in-a-while thing; that’s a one-time thing.
But that would seem to be a pretty different situation unto itself. A lot of people watched “Degrassi: The Next Generation,” a lot of girls watched "Degrassi" and they’re now some of his biggest fans. He had a built-in base.
Yeah, and now they’re more mature and can hear [curse] words, I’m happy for what happened to Drake, but the game is just completely impossible now. You have to give yourself up. That’s why I’m so frequently on Twitter; it’s because I don’t have a big record out right now. I don’t have a lot of outlets to explain and prepare people for the person they’re about to listen to.
Do you ever feel like abandoning Twitter? You always have the option of saying, "No, I don’t want to do something like that."
That’s why I take sabbaticals. It’s difficult because you can see how many people already have the leak of your album, and there’s always all these people that are like, "[Screw you], Wale, I hope you die." Back in the day, it took time to write a letter, fold it, find an envelope and stamp and mail it.
It makes people feel like they’re tough enough to say things to your face. They’ll write things like, ‘If I ever see you, I’m going to…." I’m like, "Dawg, I’ve been to every major city. I don’t have a security detail. I’ve never met a person who’d say that to my face."
In a way, counting mix tapes, this is really like your sixth album. Is it difficult to have to keep on creating mostly free content to keep on feeding the Internet-era appetite for new music?
I’m in a different place on the mix tapes than I am with the stuff on my album. I don’t care as much about the mix tapes. I say what I want to say, but on the actual album I was a lot more careful. I’d rewrite things two or three times just to make sure things were perfect.
Do you ever think that you’re angling more for a Mos Def-type fan base than say, a Drake-type fan base?
I don’t know. I really don’t know what my fan base is. I don’t think anyone knows. It’s so weird. On one hand, they’re like, Wale is the new Common or Mos Def, and on the other hand, people say Wale is the other Drake. On the other end, people are like, Wale is the new Jay-Z. On the other, they’re like, Wale is the new Talib Kweli. I don’t think anybody knows. There’s definitely some commercial appeal, but I’m not sure if I can put my finger on it. It’s interesting, because when I did my radio tour, all these people, all these pop stations spoke to me, and I was like, "Dawg, you don’t care about me. You only care about me because I did a record about Gaga."
In a lot of urban markets, they know who I was, they cared about me, they knew my grind and my struggle, but there wasn’t anything for me to give them at that point. It’s something I’m still trying to figure out. Still, we sell out shows all the time.
You have been for a while too. You and Blu sold out the Key Club last year.
But I’m not a radio artist, at least at this point. Pharrell says I am. Jay says I am, but I’m not at this point. I did “Chillin.” ... It was what it was, but nothing stuck -- at least stuck the way that I had hoped. But yet there are still fans coming by the boatload, so I’m thankful for that. I just hope they buy the album next week. I really think it’s going to stand the test of time.
-- Jeff Weiss
Wale plays Sunday with Jay-Z, N.E.R.D. and J. Cole at UCLA's Pauley Pavilion, 555 Westwood Plaza, Westwood, 7:30 p.m. $35.50-$79.00.