Published Jan 30, 2012Washington, D.C.'s Wale Folarin has had a tumultuous half-decade. The rapper emerged on the national scene in 2007, building an affiliation with super-producer Mark Ronson and releasing a slew of acclaimed mixtapes 2008's critically beloved, Seinfeld-themed The Mixtape About Nothing won him a deal with Interscope Records, though 2009 debut Attention Deficit was a commercial disappointment. Last year a guest Waka Flocka's mega-hit "No Hands" led to Wale signing a deal with Rick Ross's Warner Bros imprint Maybach Music. After appearing on the MMG collective album Self Made Vol. 1, he released his sophomore album Ambition, which debuted at number two on the US Billboard 200. In an exclusive interview with Exclaim! before his performance at Toronto's Phoenix Concert Theatre, Wale discussed race, the rap industry and balancing ignorance with intelligence on-record.
Does the theory you espoused about the rap industry in "The Perfect Plan" still apply in 2012?
About [the industry's decline] being the fans' fault? I think we just gotta work harder to get it. It isn't fair but I ain't about to sit here and bitch about it. Music is so disposable, and there's so much traffic, so much stuff that has no integrity, no meaning, no substance. In the information age, in a way it's harder to gather the masses for an announcement. It's hard to create a general consensus. So that's the new challenge. I think a lot of us would have excelled in the '90s...myself, Wiz [Khalifa], [J.] Cole. We're successful now but it'd be a little different. Now we gotta do mixtapes, we gotta stay present. Literally, I tweeted that my album sales dropped a little bit. It's a direct [correlation], you really can't take any breaks now.
How does that business change play into your social media strategy? You've got an engaged, very devoted following on Twitter and Facebook.
I just want to be real, to be somebody that everybody feels is like them. Whatever my financial state, however it fluctuates, I want them to always see themselves in me. Because I know what it's like, I can still taste waking up, going to school or to my nine-to-five. The thing that I want is to be great in this hip-hop game. I genuinely want to be great, and I'm sure the people listening to me want to be great in what they do. And I want that to be something they can use for that extra inspiration.
Your song "Shades" [off 2009's Attention: Deficit] speaks on colour prejudice in black entertainment. Now there are a lot of successful acts who are first- and second-generation Africans like Akon, Abel Tesfaye of the Weeknd who's Ethiopian, Nneka who's Nigerian. Is that prejudice changing?
I think it's just the evolution of music, man. It's just something that was bound to happen. People are getting smarter, the internet [helps], there's no barrier. In the '90s, something came out in London, it wouldn't hit the States until four years later. Now it's a couple weeks later.
Styles crystallize faster too. A few years ago I didn't know anything about DC artists besides '90s acts like Questionmark Asylum. Now you got Fat Trel, Diamond District, Black Cobain...
Like I said, certain things are inevitable. It only took one. But I think we got a long way to go still. I think if people keep their attitude right and their music good, I think the sky's the limit for DC music.
You put DC slang like "Joe" and "bama" in your music too.
It's just how I talk. I think hip-hop shouldn't be forced. If people wouldn't understand what I'm [rapping], they wouldn't understand what I was saying if I was in front of them [laughs] So I just talk to the people on these records.
Who else should people be checking for in DC?
Black Cobain doin' his thing, Tabi Bonney really killing it right now, Kingpen Slim... there's a lot of guys making good music down there. Blizzy, another young dude doing his thing. It's street MCs, it's conscious MCs... I hate to put people in boxes but just to give you an idea of the variety of flavours in DC.
The rappers you mentioned earlier are down with cliques, like Wiz with Taylor Gang or J. Cole with Roc Nation. Why was linking up with Rick Ross' Maybach Music Group important for you?
It's a proper foundation for what I was trying to do. Allido [Records] was cool, Mark Ronson was cool, but I don't think they were able to help me accentuate my message to urban America the way I needed to. I'm my own person. I have my own message, my own style and I think Maybach gave me the platform to show all that.
On the title track of MMG's Self Made Vol. 1, you seem to be addressing your transition to the label and people who felt you jumped off some bandwagon onto another.
The thing about it is... [pause] now people only see the names on paper, how it looks. You gotta realize, I challenge myself. If it's a trap record, what is Wale going to say? I challenge myself to go around [the concept] and still deliver a message. I think it's genius. It's something that keeps the vigour, keeps me creative. Ross is like, "Let's call this record '600 Benz.' So I'm like, "I'm going to show him and anybody who judges the song by the title the drive to get from an S550 to a 600 [Mercedes-Benz]." When you kinda well off but it's just at a higher level of tangible success. At this particular moment, something material like a 600 is a swing of 75 grand. But I'm talking about the desire to get there.
"By Any Means" is also a super-conscious but also a super-ignorant record. And you're talking about DC's Muslim community.
Yeah, and I think that was a challenge. I like to play on words and I like to tell a message. I feel like that was on the strongest verses of last year because of what I was trying to accomplish on there.
Do you have a specific writing process?
Never. It varies, man. I gotta do something for Mark [Ronson] tomorrow, it might take 5 minutes, it might take 20 minutes, it might take 60 minutes.
Do you have a favourite verse?
Maybe the second verse to "Legendary". Maybe.