Wale on the Lost Art of Playing the Long Game

“I’ve been loyal to the game sometimes when the game didn’t have love for me.” Photo: Calvin Bak

Wale is a fascinating character, a 2000s mixtape legend — thanks to the strengths of releases like 2007’s Seinfeld-sampling The Mixtape About Nothing. His 2009 Interscope Records debut, Attention Deficit, took intriguing chances — Gucci Mane on a go-go track; Lady Gaga on a song sampling the sports-arena jam “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye” — but didn’t catch fire on the charts as expected. Later, joining Rick Ross’s Maybach Music Group in 2011, the D.C. rapper settled into a string of solid, successful releases like 2011’s Ambition, whose Miguel collab “Lotus Flower Bomb” was nominated for Best Rap Song at the 2013 Grammys, and 2015’s The Album About Nothing, a sequel to the 2010 mixtape with narration from Jerry Seinfeld himself. He’s now onto his seventh album, Folarin II, a sequel to his 2012 mixtape Folarin. (The rollout wasn’t without its hiccups. A few songs, including a collaboration with Freddie Gibbs, missed the final cut due to sample-clearance issues; this summer, during the months leading up to the album’s release, Wale took some time off that he recently attributed to recovering from COVID-19. This presents the double challenge of overcoming the aftereffects of the virus while getting re-acclimated with the public-facing duties of an artist promoting a new album.)

Folarin II further advances the artist’s ongoing quest to bridge trap, boom bap, and go-go sounds and to explore the ties between fashion, wrestling, sneakers, R&B, hip-hop, and African culture. Guests and samples balance past and present: “Poke It Out” sees Wale trading slick bars with J. Cole on a flip of Q-Tip’s 1999 hit “Vivrant Thing.” Later, “Dearly Beloved” traces a love connection coming undone over a clip of a performance from The Jamie Foxx Show. I spoke to Wale over Zoom as he traversed New York the day before a set at Rolling Loud about new music, new industry rules, and the challenges anxiety creates for the rapper and actor.

Folarin II has been out for a week and the response among hip-hop fans has been positive. What’s your personal metric for success in an album cycle?
This era is just so busy. I can feel when the mainstream loves the music. The energy around this album seems super passionate: “Man, this is an amazing project.” “Man, I’m so happy for you.” Even passive-aggressive haters are like, “I’m not even a Wale fan, but this joint …”

That’s always the most rewarding …
The second most rewarding. The first is the diehards that feel fulfilled. The second is like, “Yo, I reluctantly love this joint.”

This feels like some of your best rapping. You’re trying to tie a lot of ideas together and bridge the gap between classic sounds and new sounds. That’s admirable. Not everyone can hang in both settings.
I was trying to get into the culture that I know very well, but also the culture that people see in me. I wanted to encapsulate when I was doing “D-A-N-C-E.” I was on tour with Mark Ronson and I heard that shit in the hotel and I was like, “I’m going to rap on this.” I wanted to get that energy back, so that’s why you hear so many samples that come from different places, from Faith Evans to Mike Jones to go-go.

Go-go is a polarizing genre. It belongs to us. You got to experience that shit for real to truly get it. It’s hard to explain to the world how much this genre has evolved because they don’t even know the beginning of it. Me and Pharrell are trying to do more go-go music; sometimes we disagree on how to present go-go to the world. It’s so hard, but it’s a passion project for me.

To be able to do a song like “Jump In” is a very rewarding feeling; I wear that shit as a badge of honor. It might be big shoes to fill, but I’ve been in so many sessions with Pharrell and with Cole trying to explain how we going to give go-go to the world, to people who’ve never been to D.C. or never been to a go-go show, because it’s very important. Go-go is what made me who I am when I was 19, 20 rapping with different bands, and when I was in high school trying to start a band. Somebody the other day was like, “Wale got to stop doing go-go or he can’t be in the conversation.” Nah, n- - - -, I’m going to keep doing go-go, and that’s why I’m going to be in the conversation.

Is there anything that you learned in bands that you continue to apply to your career as a rapper?
This is probably going to be crazy to hear, but when I write my rhymes, I don’t know what I’m writing to. I write to a beat how I write to it. [DJ] Money might be like, “Bro, this verse crazy. You was just writing to the bass.” And I won’t know until he explains it to me. “You was writing to the guitar.” “You was writing to the piano.” I just find something and lock in. I really don’t know. And I think, in this small instance, ignorance is bliss. I don’t want to know what grabs me to make me write this way. Part of me thinks it comes from my great-grandfather being a drummer and my family being into music. I don’t be knowing what makes me come up with the flows.

I’m curious about your thoughts on the wave of African artists really charting in the States now. Summer 2019 and 2020, if it wasn’t a Pop Smoke song playing out in New York City, it was Burna Boy’s “Ye.” This summer, I must’ve heard Wizkid’s “Essence” every day.
It’s a great feeling. My very first time out was Attention Deficit, and I had the “My Sweetie” joint. That was a song that my aunts and my uncles and my father used to play at all the parties. To see the evolution of it is crazy. It’s not surprising because I know there’s so many Nigerians all over the country, so many Ghanaians over the country, Ethiopians, Sierra Leoneans. It was inevitable. Dancehall had a chokehold on our childhood. Now, there’s so many diaspora kids that’s grown. There are rappers, club promoters, DJs, artists, athletes, so they got the culture. I’m really, really, really full of pride when it comes to that.

There’s a lyric in “Fluctuate” where you say, “My worst drug has been loyalty.” Can you elaborate on what you meant by that?
You want to be loyal. You want to be with your people. You want to be with who you love. But that shit’ll hurt you too. Blind loyalty, dumb loyalty — however you want to word it — that shit’ll fuck you up. I’ve been loyal to certain people that really ain’t had no love for me; I’ve been loyal to the game sometimes when the game didn’t have love for me. I’ve given my all to certain things or certain people or certain ideas that just ain’t loved me back, when I felt like I was doing the right thing. And that shit felt like … It’s like a drug. You feel like it’s right in the moment, but then when you wake up out of that, you realize it’s not for you.

The other day, Meek Mill said he wasn’t sure what was in his record deal, and he isn’t being paid for his music. Kanye said something similar about his label situation last year. As someone with some years in this industry who has dealt with more than one label, do you feel it’s easy to miss these details? Are you sometimes signing things not fully knowing what’s in them because you’re anxious to get the ball rolling?
Contracts are all like snowflakes; I don’t know what nobody else’s is looking like. We all have our teams, lawyers or whatever. I know for a fact that if I was going through some things with mine, I gotta talk to the people that I was with that okayed it. I’ve signed bad partnerships and endorsements. Music, not so much. I dropped out of school, signed one, and then boom, signed another one, boom, sign another one, boom, sign another. But with endorsements and creative and stuff like that, that shit happens all the time with me.

A lot’s been said about your social-media presence, but I feel like you’re at your best lately when you go back and forth with Freddie Gibbs, whose path has some similarity to yours. He started out in a situation with Interscope Records that didn’t pan out and he improved his craft a little more every year after that.
It’s depressing when fans don’t know we’re joking. It makes me angry for real. Freddie’s my man. That’s my guy. We be on the phone talking, laughing all the time. That’s the person that I feel like if we do a joint project, we’ll fuck it up. Because we have the same type of sense of humor. We both doing film now. We both been counted out. I just wish people really, really knew what it is.

By the way, the record I got with Freddie, Mark Ronson was dragging his feet because he ain’t clear it on time. So that’s why it’s not on the album, for the record. But that’s my dog.

Is there a plan for songs that weren’t quite finished in time for the Folarin II release to come out in some capacity?
There’s two, maybe three records that I really wanted to put on this project. I tried to recreate them and remake them and reproduce them, and it didn’t work …

And I don’t know if I can clear some of those in the time span for a deluxe version. There are some songs that are in litigation. It’s drama. But I will say that what I was able to do, I’m proud of. You gotta look at guys like Rance from 1500 Or Nothin’, he’s a closer. There was one record that’s on the album that we couldn’t clear a sample. Him and Young Guru tapped in and freaked the beat and made it something else. We weren’t as fortunate with other records, though.

How do you feel about the practice of dropping deluxe editions a few weeks after launch to bring fans back to the well?
I ain’t even mad at that, bro. It’s so much music that’s coming out. Everything is going crazy. You could drop a record and that motherfucker go Top 50 on the Hot 100 the first week. I remember when I dropped “On Chill” [in 2019]. First, second, third, fourth week, that shit was not on the Hot 100. So many songs get on for one week and fall off. “On Chill” got on there and just stayed there. It was at least three-fourths of a year.

This whole shit right now, the way it’s set up, is all over the place. What is the upward trajectory in this space right now? I don’t really feel like we really know for real. It’s such a weird spot for the culture right now. How does it pan out in two, three years?

The rules changed really quickly. The biggest artists are breaking chart records with every drop, and that’s becoming the floor for a lot of people. There’s not a reasonable sense of what success looks like. People are measuring against Taylor Swift, Drake, Adele, whoever’s smashing records. If you’re not doing that, people say, “It came and went.” I’m almost not even mad about IPs and ideas being recycled in this era anymore. Times are terrible, and people want distractions. I just don’t know why fans are getting so wrapped up in the sales and streaming numbers.
What the fuck was Mike and Quincy dealing with? What was they thinking about around that time? They were just trying to make something timeless. “We’re going to do nine songs. That’s what it’s going to be.” What the fuck is the equivalent of that in 2022, moving forward? I aspire to be great. I aspire to set trends. I aspire to do things my way. I’m happy that my fans and my core love what I do. But I’m like, What is it? What’s next?

I think we need different language to talk about charts. It used to be that when your record sold a million, it was because 1 million people walked to a store to buy it. Now, you can go platinum off people listening to your song and still be a bit clueless to what their level of engagement was.
There’s no way to gauge it, and it’s so weird because people will look at you like, “Welp, your record didn’t sell this much, so …”

You can cultivate a respectable fan base, and some people will still be disappointed. Getting 30,000 people to buy copies of an album that doesn’t run up streams can scan as a failure. Expectations are unreasonable. I think the game is just to stay in the game as long as you can, and to challenge ourselves to do the best work we can. When it comes to people who have never read any portion of a book about the business of music, I try to leave chart stuff to people who live and breathe it.
Everybody thinks they know everything now. One of the cringiest things for me right now is when you put out a record, and immediately people say, “You should put such-and-such on the remix.” Who said there’s a remix? Like, bro, enjoy the music. That took time to create. You’re already thinking about this imaginary verse that doesn’t exist and this artist might not even be able to ride the beat or perform it that way. Feels like music is so cheap now. And it sucks because we really love this shit.

There’s a lower barrier to entry in rap right now. You can score a hit record having spent $200 to lease a beat.
Do you think there’s more one-hit wonders in this era than there was in the mid to early ’90s?

I am of a mind that we don’t talk enough about one-hit wonders from the ’90s, so people think this decade is more disposable than priors, when there was a lot of old music that didn’t push the dial.
I don’t know, man. I don’t want to say names right now. But right now, a lot of guys … It’s in-and-out in real time right now. I’m like, Damn, it’s crazy that you’re not going to be here next year. Not even on no diss or shit. It’s just I see what it is. Get your money, young n- - - -. You know what I mean?

There’s less artist development now. There’s less room to miss now. Attention spans are flaky.
Folks will go viral and get a record deal. When they get a record deal, the label’s like, “Okay, now what?” And the artist is like, “I don’t know. You tell us.”

The virality is one aspect of a career, and I think it’s one that people over-account for. If you don’t have chops behind that first push forward, what was it worth? Doja Cat got attention behind a meme song and did not let up. I don’t love all the moves that she makes, but I have to respect that.
We were trying to get her to be an opener for a tour …. this was, I want to say, Album About Nothing era. I’ve been watching her for a long, long, long, long, long time. That girl is a unique and special artist. In my opinion, she’s everything that a pop artist should be now.

I won’t deny that she’s the total package. Barred up. She can sing. Dance moves are elite, not of this Earth. For better or for worse, she has a good handle on social media. We’re definitely watching someone who’s going to be around for a while, I think.
I think with the “Mooo” shit, she knew what she was doing. Lil Nas, too. He know what he doing. He know how to fucking get a rise out of people. Maybe that’s what the future of pop is.

I think Lil Nas is better at getting a rise out of people than maybe he even knows he is.
No, I think bro knows. He been knew. Me and him used to talk a lot in DMs. I was like, “You’re a marketing genius.” He knew. He was into Reddit, that type of shit. He know what he’s doing. He’s a genius.

You have to be ever-present to get on. But after that, you can sort of throttle. We don’t hear from Kendrick Lamar sometimes for months at a time, and that’s allowed because people trust the artistry.
I would love to be like that.

Would you, though?
Hey, bro, if I could just go away …

I like to think I would love to be less online, but I still open the apps every day.
If I could go away and just know that everything is going to be okay, I would do it. I truly believe … I know I would do it.

Here’s the thing. If tomorrow you decided that you just didn’t want to do Twitter anymore, you only wanted to put music out, your fans would still be paying attention.
Yeah, but … I want to spread the word.

There’s a value that makes it useful. You can reach people. You can straighten people out. You can put important ideas out. You can boost other people.
But for the most part, if I didn’t have to be there, I wouldn’t be. I’m more introverted. I’m more to myself. I could be by myself for days at a time. I’ve been by myself so much that I forgot what my voice sound like.

I have to be in people’s face at this point in my life. I got to do that. And that’s fine. But if I didn’t have to, I wouldn’t at all. I would be just like my brother Cole and my man Kendrick. When I’m about to come back out, yeah, I come back out. But I know what I got to do.

You have a dedicated audience. If the internet annoys you to a point that costs you peace, you could theoretically just turn accounts over to management and be one of those artists who only says anything when something drops. But you want to reach people.
I disagree. But I’m going to think on that for a little bit.

I just feel like if I’m not in their face, I’m not provided the facilities to get certain things, and that’s fine, but that’s why I got to promote me right now. Do I want to? No, because I’m very, very to myself. But I know my fans need me right now, so I got to give them everything I got for right now.

Last year took effort to maintain a sense of community with venues and shows on pause. How did you get through 2020? What did you learn about yourself in all that isolation?
I ain’t going to lie, bro. I gained 25 pounds because I was binging. I was just eating. It was just comfort … Comfort shows, comfort eating. That was my lifestyle for a long time. I was fucked up. But from a mental standpoint, I started reading a lot of articles [and listening to] audiobooks. I grew from that a lot.

I’ve asked a lot of musicians about their experience of 2020, and it’s almost hard to talk about. We were sidelined out of necessity, but cultural awakening happened that year. It’s a bittersweet thing because it was a terrible time, but some of us came out of it a lot smarter.
When did you realize shit was about to go left?

I was in a bar in early March not long before the bars shut down. I had spilled something and I was shook about touching the napkins required to clean it up. That was maybe the second to last time I would go out socially for a calendar year, til this April.
I was doing American Gods. They filmed in Toronto. So I’m tired. My agent is like, “Yo, read these scripts. You’re going to get this.” “On Chill” was the No. 1 song on radio at that point. I got to my crib, my L.A. joint, and I was like, I don’t want to do nothing. I don’t want to go outside for three days. The next day, Oklahoma was playing Utah. I was on my couch. The game got shut down. I was like, This shit ain’t right. Then I saw on ESPN, it said, “The NBA season is canceled.” I’m thinking, I’ve got what I was asking for.

In 2019 there was a lot of intense drama going on in certain friend circles, and I would think to myself pretty often that everybody could really use a break. I did not know what I was asking for.
I did Michael Bay’s movie Ambulance during the height of the pandemic. My bouts with anxiety and all of that heightened so crazy. I’m doing this film with Michael Bay, Yahya [Abdul-Mateen II], and Jake Gyllenhaal, and I’m going to the set by myself, and nobody’s with me. Michael Bay is intense! So I’m trying to figure it out. Meanwhile, I’m trying to make an album at the same time. I learned to balance it all out. I turned down two roles and did the Michael Bay joint because I seen who was in the movie. The pandemic showed me I can man up, just get this shit together, and try to figure it out.

That’s something to think about. We’re doing everything on hard mode right now. When this dust settles eventually, hopefully we will have learned new ways to cope. Do you watch Dragon Ball Z?
I never did Dragon Ball Z.

They train for a big fight with weights on so they feel lighter and faster at their normal size. Maybe when there are less constraints, stuff that seemed tough will feel like dancing. I feel hopeful today for some reason.
I don’t know. This shit is so unpredictable. Every time I think that I know, something proves I don’t know.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

His remix to the 2007 hit from French electronic duo Justice; he and Ronson later performed the remix together at the VMAs. “There’s the Chuck Brown era. There’s Backyard and Northeast Groovers. Then you got that transition where it’s UCB, and then you have the bounce beat, TCB, T.O.B., and all these younger bands that was coming up when I was coming up.”
Wale on the Lost Art of Playing the Long Game