Everyone has heard the concept of the “blockbuster movie.” It’s a film that delivers on epic proportions. Well, Washington D.C.-born rapper Wale (aka Olubowale Victor Akintimehin) delivers to his fans blockbuster albums.
On tracks that rise like skyscrapers, the lyricist rides overtop. It’s a talent that few boast and none better than he. When considering the number of fans, size of reach, and all that go into a movie like Jaws, Wale delivers similarly sonically, and he does so with keen bravado.
Even when his music is “about nothing,” like the two albums the artist did with comedian Jerry Seinfeld—The Album About Nothing and mixtape More About Nothing—there is still momentousness afoot (see: the 2015 song, “Matrimony” featuring Usher). And on Wale’s forthcoming new record, Folarin II, which is out Friday (October 22), the emcee has arrived in a similar victorious fashion. Each song feels like a win, a big score. But, for Wale, that victorious nature first came from his introduction to the game of football.
“Football is the reason why I’m a competitive person,” Wale tells American Songwriter. “Point blank, period. Football is why Wale is competitive.”
Wale, who is also a famous fan of professional wrestling (do not disturb him with music talk while he’s watching the WWE), grew up playing football. He had visions of playing professionally before music essentially consumed his heart and mind.
As a young person, Wale thought he might become a drummer. Percussion and rhythm are in his blood. Beginning by about five years old, he would bang on every nearly surface in his house, tapping out beats. His great-grandfather was a drummer and so were a number of his uncles. As he got older, Wale realized he had a talent for songwriting, but not necessarily one for singing.
“I’m lucky to be able to be good with words,” Wale says. “But I wish I could sing, I really do. I’d probably have so many cover albums.” Wale adds that he wishes he could draw, too. “People that can draw, y’all are freaks! Y’all should be studied, it’s crazy. But I’m glad I can rap.”
The emcee points out that today there are so many significant subgenres of rap music. There’s the traditional form of spitting, rhyming. But there are others who may not be so rhythmic in their delivery or so focused on multisyllabic rhyming. This fact points to a larger reality about the music business, Wale says. For him, it can often feel like “the wild, wild west.” Yet, Wale has maintained a high caliber of collaborative partners, along with his solo success. He’s worked with Lady Gaga, Rihanna, Mark Ronson, DJ Khaled, J. Cole, and many others. But while his music is often larger than life, his demeanor isn’t always.
“Maybe it’s being a little bit aloof,” Wale says. “There’s a certain charm in me being a little aloof. It’s kind of weird, looking back at it. Because I can be neurotic sometimes. I can be in my own head a lot. Luckily, when I was working with Rihanna—I knew what I was doing. But I remember hearing the song [later] on Hot 97 and going, ‘Wow, I just did a song with Rihanna.’ That’s when I can be neurotic.”
Wale says that when “it’s game time,” he performs the brightest. Many artists are like this: shy in person but effervescent once they hit the proverbial or literal stage. Yet, Wale’s skill was challenged this past year. Like many, he suffered from symptoms from COVID-19, which included lengthy post-virus effects.
“I caught COVID,” Wale says. “I [was] in the hospital, down bad for about a month. My first show after that, my lungs weren’t even back one hundred percent. There’s this thing called ‘COVID fog,’ and shit is intense. You can’t think straight, it feels like you’re on an edible. Your brain is foggy. I remember not being able to breathe on stage.” He adds, “Everything felt so intense, I was over-stimulated, the light was so bright.”
Thankfully, Wale is feeling better now, post symptoms. But not before thinking about mortality, both his own and that of others, including friends, including D.C. rapper, Chucky Thompson, who died from COVID-19.
“Chucky was a D.C. legend,” Wale says. “Our last conversation was about the record. I knew I was going to see him when this shit came out. But he passed away, in the same hospital I was at, I believe.”
Despite his fame and aesthetic largess, real life is always at the forefront for Wale. Fame is not the goal; not really. In fact, Wale says, it makes him uncomfortable.
“I’m not a big fan of it, to be honest,” Wale says. “I like to do regular stuff. I was walking around Beverly Hills this month and someone shouted my name like, ‘YO!’ I’m still not good with it. I’m not really great at being famous.”
For each album in his catalog, Wale says he approaches it differently. Some have themes from the outset, others reveal their through-lines during the creative process. More than anything, though, Wale says he is just recording “nonstop.” And it’s this level of constant output that has kept Wale at the forefront of hip hop since his earlier releases in the aughts more than a decade and a half ago.
“I think I’m definitely in the mix,” Wale says humbly.
As the artist looks to the future, he says he’s unsure where both he and the music business will be. For Wale, there is so much music consumption but so little real attention paid to much of it. Not to mention, there are hundreds of top talents going undiscovered every day. It’s an odd balance and, he wonders if it’s sustainable. Yet, still, it’s an industry in which Wale continues to thrive. What is sustainable, however, is a genuine connection, whether that happens with one person in particular or a swath of individuals. And for Wale, with all his talent, he remains skilled at seeing people eye-to-eye.
“The feeling that you get when you make a record and it connects with people that you love,” Wale says. “[I love] that feedback from the people that are really rocking with it.”
Photo courtesy Warner Music