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The Beat

of Atlantic Records

The Black Sheep Theory:

Gift of an artist & the curse of fame

Using life to define your art is the fastest way to insanity. Wale knows this, yet his talent, tribulations and track record won’t let him live...or will it?

Like many true artists, the John Coltranes, Nina Simones, Madonnas and Bob Marleys, Ralph Victor Folarin nee Olubowale Victor Akintimehin, now known as Wale is haunted by his own expectations and the desire to have his art as loved by others as he loves it himself. He’s gifted, but in many ways the twenty-six year old is also cursed. The gift is the trinkets, trophies and associations that come with the success of work that expresses his natural self.

The curse is being a tortured soul that must wrestle with an inner spirit (including the many misconceptions about oneself) that won’t rest until all the voices from friends, family and social media to those heard in solitude, are quieted with defeat from his best efforts. It’s a vicious cycle that’s impossible to control on the day-to-day. The only release is the creative outlets he allows himself to be passionate enough to feed.

This formidable MC, artful poet and energetic performer, found himself at the managerial home of Jay-Z’s Roc Nation agency before landing his record deal with Rick Ross’ Maybach Music Group and after a so-so debut release on Interscope Records. Yet, despite having two industry heavyweight names support, Wale remains unfulfilled, unacknowledged and underappreciated.

On the eve of his third album, The Gifted, I sat with the DC native in three separate interviews (the finale taking place on his tour bus somewhere outside of Hartford, Connecticut) in the hopes of answering one question: What is it about this truly talented MC that rubs so many the wrong way?

The great oracle, Oprah Winfrey once said: "the black sheep is usually the most sensitive, who absorbs all of the other family members energy." This is truest of Wale.

What is your gift?

I like to believe it's this music, but whatever God has planned for me. It could be something that I think I have but I don't really know yet.

How’d you end up in a detention center? How old were you?

I got in a fight at the end of sixth grade; as y'all know, I have a temper. It was worse when I was younger. I had a problem with people telling me what to do. I got into an altercation with somebody in the locker room and the ambulance and police were involved. They arrested an eleven-year-old and put me on probation for a long time and that's when they put their eye on me. My last straw was seventh grade year, I threw a rock at a bus and they said "we can't have you in school with the regular kids." They put me with all the niggas in group homes and five-month pregnant girls that barely come to school - super manipulative, dangerous children.

At what point did you realize you might be gifted?

When I was in that detention center and they used to make us write poems - Martin Luther King, independence, civil rights - you had to rhyme it. One day my teacher said, "son, you're gifted. You got a talent with this rhyming thing."

What was your reaction to this?

I didn't think anything of it. But that lasted about three weeks - I'm riding the small bus to school. For some reason they were doing some searching on the bus that day and somebody had a .45 wrapped up in his gym clothes. I don't know if I'd ever been that scared and that's when I was like I'm not in Kansas anymore. But I think you get put through certain things for a reason and I feel like I was put through that to learn how to maneuver. I wasn't in the trap with niggas; I wasn't cooking coke and all the things that we glorify now. But [because of that] I'm comfortable around it.

You're first generation American. Growing up, did that give you any identity issues?

Both my parents were born in Nigeria but they met in D.C. [My upbringing] was super down the line. I love the fact that we're Nigerian. There have been twenty-year long jokes on the accent. We know how to poke fun at ourselves. But I don't know no Yoruba. I know how to dissect it and [I can understand it] a little bit. You can't even blame me because when I was younger, at the age when you're supposed to learn it, my parents were gone. I was raised by outside and TV and guessing a lot.

So you’ve had to figure out a lot of things on your own.

You gotta understand that I grew up in a one-bedroom apartment - very sheltered - we weren't allowed to go outside. When we'd get home, our parents would leave and lock the door. My parents didn't have no money, had two kids, a cab driver and a Roy Rogers [employee] - where would the money come from to be able to pay for a babysitter? It wasn't to hurt me at all, but that's in retrospect.

But at the time, are you angry at the sheltering? Are you resentful of being locked away from the world?

I'm not angry anymore. Now I get why my parents would want to shelter me like that. This is D.C. in the late eighties, this is when crack is rockin' and they don't have young American friends like that. All they know is, if your kid is outside he might get hit by a stray bullet.

I finally heard The Gifted last night. You made a dope album.

Thank you...I don't know what's genuine and what's real anymore. You know how many times everybody told me I made a great album? I always hear about how good I am but then this shit - awards, magazine covers - I've become a little bit jaded, "oh, dope album, dope this, dope that".

So you’re upset that you’re not receiving the praise. But you also don’t believe the praise when it comes. How does that work?

It’s not that. I’m tired of being praised in my face but then those same people don’t say anything publicly. You know Jay-Z has never once said in an interview, "Wale is a dope MC"?

He manages you. He stamped Roc Nation on your back. Doesn’t that make a bigger statement?

I guess. I'm tired of complaining so I keep a lot of that shit to myself now.

Is there a chance you’re driving yourself crazy?

Without a doubt.

I have a theory: We love the people who remain separate from us. We value them. Hold them on a pedestal. So if you’re standing here with your arms open, saying "here I am, ready to give you everything," we don’t immediately see the value in that. People don't know how to charm and adore, we’re programmed to chase.

That was very prolific... But see... I do all these things because I feel like good things will come of it. But I've finally realized these people don't fuck with me. I'm getting angrier and angrier with that.

That anger issue again. What do you think your reputation is?

People think that I'm a jerk; people think that I got a beautiful spirit. If you ask Ross, he'll say "that nigga's crazy but he's dope". If you ask Rihanna, she'll say, "That dude has a spirit almost like a hippie"; if you ask Meek, he'll say, "That nigga works hard". They [media, journalists] already got what they think about you in their head already.

Do you think you're misunderstood?

I think everybody's misunderstood.

You have this reputation of being an asshole. Are you aware of that?

I'm weird because I get uncomfortable [with] fishbowl shit. I got anxiety. I mentally prepare if I'm doing a meet and greet, but if I go somewhere and everybody stop and I don't' have time to prepare, my heart starts racing and I start getting sweaty and anxious and I just [motions as if he’s pushing something away]. Even now with the appearance I'm about to do, [anxiety] might come if it gets weird - too much staring or whispering or when I can tell if somebody's about to ask me for something. I can feel when somebody's plotting on me. People think just because you’re famous, you’re supposed to be who they want you to be. There’s an expectation that I can’t live up to.

So you’re not actually trying to be an asshole. It’s anxiety?

A lot of times, yeah. I don’t really open up. You’re asked to do that so much when you’re famous. You have to be a specific way for perception purposes - always having to take pictures and have to like being famous.

Do you like being famous?

No, not at all.

Did you think you would like being famous?

I never thought about it like that. You don't think about the X-factors when you're on your way; you just think about making music and selling records. You don't think something called Instagram will be invented and ruin your life as far as trying to go anywhere and just do regular shit without people hovering over you for pictures and shit. It ain't about fans no more, it's about obsession with popularity and perception. Fifty percent of people you take pictures with probably don't buy your albums. My friends ask, "Do you know the name of the album?" They'll say "no" and they laugh, but it's not funny. That shit actually pisses me off: you want this picture but it ain't for me, it's to show niggas you met somebody who's been on TV today.

If you had to sum yourself up with one of your songs, which would you choose?

"Simple Man". It talks about just that: you blow up in rap, they blow your phone up; whenever you don't, you lose a homie or a hoe or some money from a show.

Don’t you think constantly chasing or outrunning your last work will get tiring? Eventually, won’t the work itself have to be enough?

I never thought about that, I just try to top it. Right now, I'm just trying to top whatever I did last and hope it stands the test of time in the process.

So we sat down to talk about the burden of the gifted, which I believe is this constant desire to do more. You don’t know how to celebrate what's happening now. You're on to the next thing. Do you identify with that?

That's what the first song on the album is about, trying to be better than my last. No matter if you're a winner, you're still trying to be better than your last, so that's what success is like. Whoever's winning, you're trying to get to that level and if you're winning you're gonna try to top your last so it's really a never-ending battle.

What are you afraid of?

Failure, losing. Making bad albums, bad records - when everything's just bad.

What's more important: critical acclaim or sales and numbers?

Impact is more important, but we live in a day and age where those are almost synonymous. Impact is shown by numbers. It's an even playing field unless you're Kanye West or Jay-Z. Those niggas get to go on Saturday Night Live and have million dollar commercials lead into their albums so it's not the same level playing field.

Do you want that level?

Maybe, it'll come.

When you look at 'Ye, who we're watching literally be driven or Eminem who's reclusive - They aren’t adjusting to fame. Will you try to make peace with your fame?

You're dating the most photographed woman in history. It sucks and his life has changed but he brought that. Kim K could be dating a random nigga from Queens and that nigga would instantly be into the fire. That's what you asked for; you're not just gonna date Kim Kardashian and not have any white folks all on your ass all day.

You're three albums in; if you could go back to mixtape Wale, what would you caution him about?

I’d warn him about the corniness of fame. I already knew about fake people, the weasels and all that shit. I'm just very passionate about the music. That's all I ever cared about, the process of it and how it comes out. I try to be nice to people and I know my heart is good, but no matter what I do people are always gonna have something to say. So I just try to let people know who I am through my music and my actions along the way.