Say it with us now: “Wah-lay.” That’s how you pronounce Wale, the nom de hip-hop of Olubowale Victor Akintimehin, the D.C.-born son of Nigerian immigrants whose second album, appropriately titled “Ambition”—out Nov. 1 on Warner Bros./Maybach Music—is about to put his name on every rap fan's lips.
His 2009 debut album, “Attention Deficit,” was supposed to have that effect—but it didn’t quite work out that way. After that album debuted to strong reviews but slow sales, Wale parted ways with his old label, Interscope (which had allegedly under-shipped "Attention Deficit"), and signed to Rick Ross’ Maybach Music Group. The move has some fans of Wale from his old “underground” days concerned that the rising star is getting away from his roots—but Wale insists that having Rick Ross as his label boss is much better than answering to the heads of Interscope and its parent company, Universal. (He’s quick to note, however, that he remains on good terms with Mark Ronson, the super-producer whose Allido Records imprint he was also signed to for “Attention Deficit.”)
Metromix caught up with Wale just a few days after his 26th birthday and during a brief break in his “Ambition” tour, which will take the rapper to some 40 cities to promote the new album. Up for discussion: the server-crashing popularity of his latest mixtape, his newfound artistic freedom, and his background as a high school and college football star.
Happy belated birthday! Did you already do anything to celebrate, or is that happening this weekend?
Honestly, I tell my friends, don’t do anything for me—‘cause I’m so focused on putting this album out, it’s such a defining moment in my life, we’re all so uptight and so on edge, nobody really wants to celebrate or go to the clubs or do anything other than promote and work on this album. When the albums drop, we can definitely do some celebrating.
How did you react when you heard that your mixtape, “The Eleven-One-Eleven Theory,” was getting so heavily downloaded that it was actually crashing servers?
We did it before—it was just kind of unnoted. But we did it with “More About Nothing” [his 2010 mixtape]—we crashed a couple of servers with that one. But [this time], we attracted a lot more attention from a lot more publications.
I guess in the long run, crashing a server, compared to under-shipping an album like happened with “Attention Deficit,” is not such a big problem.
Absolutely. You know, the download is only supposed to be used as an advertisement. I’m not a fool. I know that 1.2 million record sales in two days is not as realistic as 1.2 million free downloads. But I’m just hoping that the word of mouth is strong enough that it sends people to the store.
I haven’t been able to hear the album yet, but some of the guest artists mentioned for it are Rick Ross, Kid Cudi, J. Cole and Drake. Are any of those confirmed? Or are there any other guests you can tell us about?
I got a couple records with Drake, [but] it was just a timing thing. We’re very meticulous about our craft. So I can’t confirm Drake right now…but in the next couple months, you’re gonna hear a Drake/Wale record. Miguel, Rick Ross, Meek Mill, Big Sean are confirmed on [“Ambition”]. Lloyd and Ne-Yo.
And I understand among the producers on the album is Diplo, which is pretty cool. How did you guys come to work together?
We always wanted to do some records together; he’s a good friend of mine, and a real good friend of Mark Ronson, as well. He gave me a record one day in the studio…a couple of records to choose from, and I just picked one. It had that vintage Wale kind of sound, like from “The Mixtape About Nothing” days, and “100 Miles and Running.” It just had that party element.
Would you say the overall sound on “Ambition” is getting back more to your earlier mixtapes?
Absolutely. It feels like my first album. It feels like the album I should’ve been able to make for the first go-around.
What’s been the best thing about working with Rick Ross and Maybach Music? What does he bring to the table that maybe you didn’t have before?
Just the freedom to be able to do what I want to do. Before I used to feel like I worked for somebody. Now I feel like I’m my own boss. You know, “Here’s your budget, here’s your studio—now go do your album.” That’s pretty much what he did.
So all the back-and-forth on Twitter and the hip-hop blogs about whether it’s good or bad that you’re now associated with Maybach—do you think that’s all been blown out of proportion?
I just think that only in a day and age when people care about how much their favorite artist sells would a person care about who you’re signed to. Do you all know who [Motown Records founder] Berry Gordy is? Do you all know who f---in’ [Interscope head] Jimmy Iovine is? Do you all know who [music industry executive] Barry Weiss is? F--- no, they don’t know. If y’all knew some of these people in real life, y’all wouldn’t want none of that. Y’all would be like, [disdainfully] “Ohhh, what?”
Ross is no different than me signing with Mark Ronson. The way the music industry is right now, I would never in a million years sign directly to a label. Never. Nevernevernevernevernever. You need that peacemaker, you need that extra voice, you know what I’m saying? I go to Ross, Ross helps me get a producer I wouldn’t be able to get in the studio with. He makes things speed up a lot.
I know football’s a big part of your background—do you still get to play pickup games occasionally? Do you miss playing ball from your high school and college days?
Yeah, I think in retrospect, football gave me a balance that I still kinda need in my life. So it’s weird now, ‘cause I ain’t in no kinda shape to be running around. But it’s definitely something like, who knows? I might play semi-pro for a year or something. I definitely miss it, a lot.
It seems like that game mentality that you learned playing football still influences how your approach your career as a rapper.
Absolutely. That’s definitely a fair analysis. Everything is kinda competitive to me. I hate losing. I want to be better, I want to be great. I want to do better than the people that came before me. I want people to put my name up there with the best. That’s the same way I did it every time I laced my cleats up. Even if I’m playing Division II at Virginia State, I want somehow to do something on the field today that people talk about.