Wale: In Search of a Hip-Hop Masterpiece

“Ambition is the desire to be better than the people who came before you. It’s your obsession to be good or great. How great is your obsession to chase your dream?”–Wale

Wale studied the pieces on the chessboard while photographer Corey Reese captured images of him at rolling out’s photo studio several weeks before the release of his sophomore album, Ambition. The complicated board game draws stark comparisons between it and how Wale must meticulously approach his second chance at achieving hip-hop stardom. One slight mishap might result in dire consequences for his career, but the right strategy could elevate him to the upper echelon of emcees.

This time around, every move matters.
Wale says that his career should have never gotten to this point. Hip-hop’s hottest newcomer in 2008, Wale had amassed a strong fan base after releasing five acclaimed mixtapes and signing a lucrative deal with Interscope Records.

However, his pre-debut performance did not translate into high record sales or a top charting single. Attention Deficit infamously sold 28,000 copies during the first week of its release and his most notable single came during his appearance as a featured guest on Waka Flocka’s hit, “No Hands.”

But Wale’s most devoted supporters bailed him out when the larger record label didn’t see the bigger picture. Despite poor record sales, he continued to sell out venues across the country and he currently has well over one million followers on Twitter.

Rick Ross recognized Wale’s potential and signed him to his record label, Maybach Music Group. His association with Rick Ross increases his visibility and offers a new opportunity, but the pressure remains on Wale. With a queen game piece in hand, here’s his approach to locking down the checkmate.

Before the release of your first album, you built an impressive buzz for yourself. So what caused the album to fail to meet the high expectations?
I put that on myself to get back to where I need to be. We’re working. I do music for my fans and family. My fans appreciated my first album. But my label didn’t ship it for whatever reason. I re-evaluated my life and my situation and now I’m in a different place. I found out a lot of artists can’t go to a city and do a show with 2,000 people. I’m blessed to have people who appreciate what I do.

When did Rick Ross reach out to you?
The Maybach Music Group deal came about when I was a free agent. I look at Rick Ross as more than an artist. I didn’t sign to be a side kick, I want to be an artist and do what I’m capable of doing musically. Ross let’s me do that. He’s the boss at the label, but he’s not bossing me around.

So what is the biggest difference in being at MMG vs. being at Interscope?

The difference is freedom. I’m very in tune with urban culture. I felt my last situation wasn’t allowing me to grow with the urban culture. They saw a Lady Gaga opportunity and I went with it. I was a new artist and I didn’t get it. I thought I was being ignored by black America. It’s not as much money, but to connect with the people I grew up with is more important than connecting with pop fans. Even the white people who are familiar with my music deserve to hear what I’m really saying. I shouldn’t be marketed toward top 40. When I listen to my first album, you can hear who I am talking to. But I now have an opportunity to change that.

Are record labels missing out by not concentrating on that core audience?
When the numbers add up, a lot of brothers and sisters don’t buy albums. A lot of record companies are wondering why should they put money behind it if people aren’t buying music. I think people will buy music if it’s done by the right artist at the right time. Like a Drake, myself, or J. Cole. They didn’t understand that we relate to young blacks on a personal level. When it’s time to think or get on your introspective tip, you’re listening to us. They didn’t understand that. I advocate for us. I’m not a thug or street dude, but we all come from the same environment.

You have a lot of female fans. How important is it for you to balance the risque songs such as “No Hands” with inspirational tracks such as “Diary”?
I want to be an advocate for the women. I may say some wild things, but that’s our time to have fun. But I stand for fixing the world our way. Let’s add spice to this and change the world. I believe women should go to school to network with others who will change the world. I’m encouraging. I’m a part of the problem, but I want to be a part of the clean up. “No Hands” is the party and “Ambitious Girls” is the clean up. We can have fun, but I hope you’re getting up and going to class. I don’t want to get in the way of that. That [is] something you have to do. For two years, I had to walk around with about $15 in my account. That was my time. I left school and had to get on my grind. I was about 21. Now show me you can work the system for four or five years and continue to do your thing.

You caught flack from black women for not having dark-skinned females in your “Pretty Girls” video. How did that make you feel?
It wasn’t about that, but it showed me what I meant to the black culture. That made me realize that people hold me at a higher regard. That was when I knew I had to make a change. For “Pretty Girls,” I didn’t go on set until there were dark-skinned girls at the video shoot. I was waiting. The most horrible feeling in the world, was that my women think that I don’t care about them. I’d rather go broke than for my black women to think that I don’t care about them. I would rather lose everything than to have my queens think I’m turning my back on them. I was the only kid in my neighborhood with a father. And that’s because I’m African and they don’t divorce. It messed me up. When I was in Mississippi, a girl told me she had her first child at 16. So I made a song called “Illest B—- Alive.” There’s a special place in my heart for black girls. If you’re black and have a black mother, you know how special they are.

Beyond the physical, what is the most attractive thing about a woman?
I like girls who can get the intellect popping. Instead of liking me just because I rap, I like girls who can ask about where I was mentally when I thought of making a certain record. I can find a nice amount of girls who think I’m attractive or whatever, but intellect is very important. “Lotus Flower Bomb” was a record that I wanted to create a long time ago. I’m not sure if radio was ready for that at the time. That’s kind of an adult vibe. I was 23 when I was writing my first project. I was doing what I was told to do instead of doing what my heart told me to do.

You come from Washington, D.C. Although it’s the nation’s capitol, there are a lot of young black men caught up in crime and losing their lives at an early age. How do you try to serve as an example to counter those issues?
I went to a detention center school from 6th through 12th grade. It was a school with a high maximum security and people with short tempers. I went to Twain. That was a school where all the bad kids went. A lot of dudes I went to school with are dead or locked up. There are some teachers who are not with us. I have a cousin and friend who are locked up now. But that was never my way. I was on girls and sports. But I know the cost of living that life. I know dudes who were great in basketball, but now they are on dippers smoking embalming fluid. I saw dudes get killed over Jordans or $20. That’s not my thing. I’m not Jeezy; I’m not Ross; I’m not Wayne. I’m me.

What do you think people say about you as it relates to hip-hop?
I want my legacy to be that I was humble. I want people to know my heart more and more into every album. Know that I really stand for this culture and the people. Most of us know each other. Whenever people say there are only a few real dudes in this joint, I know that I’m one of them.

A.R. Shaw
A.R. Shaw

A.R. Shaw is an author and journalist who documents culture, politics, and entertainment. He has covered The Obama White House, the summer Olympics in London, and currently serves as Lifestyle Editor for Rolling Out magazine. Shaw's latest book, Trap History, delves into the history and global dominance of Trap music. Follow his journey on TrapHistory.Com, Twitter @arshaw and Instagram @arshaw23.

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