Fitting that a man who named his brand-new debut album Attention: Deficit is busy multitasking when we catch him on the phone. Rap wunderkind Wale (pronounced wah-lay) has just recovered from a nasty case of writer’s block, so he writes furiously on a pad of paper while pinning the phone to his ear. Simultaneously answering questions about his old songs while crafting fresh ones, 25-year-old Olubowale Folarin epitomizes the “what’s next?” mentality of Generation Twitter—“2,500 followers a week,” he beams. And growing.
Born in Washington, D.C. to Nigerian parents, Wale’s work ethic, perhaps even more so than his gifted flow and clever wordplay, has propelled him here, buzzing on the cusp of superstardom.
“I grew up in a house where everybody was working all the time, so that’s all I really know. If I sleep too long, I kinda feel weird,” he says. “I feel like people in D.C. gotta do twice as much as people from somewhere else to get notoriety, and it’s just part of the game. I hate the fact that it’s like that, but I understand it. It’s something that I’ve learned to accept.”
After punching the clock in the freestyle ciphers and go-go clubs of Washington, Maryland and Virginia, the music world is now accepting Wale, who has flexed his fluid linguistics on three critically acclaimed street CDs in the last three years (including 2008’s Seinfeld-themed The Mixtape About Nothing), landing him a major deal on powerhouse Interscope and a friendship with Jay-Z. Wale has been spotted partying with Kanye West and Rihanna. His face has graced the cover of Fader magazine. His songs have been played on HBO’s Entourage, and he’s toured everywhere from Toronto to Ibiza. All of this before releasing an actual album.
In effort to expand the Wale brand (his word), the rapper hired Lady Gaga for his lead single, “Chillin’.” For a guy who grew up transcribing the lyrics to A Tribe Called Quest’s “Electric Relaxation” and claims to have never been out-rhymed on a track despite collaborating with Black Thought, Lil Wayne and Lupe Fiasco, “Chillin’ ” is an overt grasp for radio spins.
“It’s the invitation to the party. Lady Gaga is the popular chick at school, and I’m the new guy. So at the new guy’s party, you gotta get the most popular girl to be the voice for you and promote it. And then when they hear the album, it’s like, ‘Damn. This guy has a lot to offer. He’s gonna be around for a while,’ ” Wale explains. “The brand starts to grow. Me and my fans are like a movement together. They know what it is. I’ve been around since ’05, and at a slow and steady pace I’ve accelerated. We got some ways to go before we come out the gate. The album’s a big deal. It’s a big deal for hip-hop, a young person doing the kind of music I make. Reality music, stuff that touches people. It’s important to take your time with stuff like that.”
Wale insists that Attention: Deficit digs deeper, that its subject matter will be more akin to songs like “The Kramer,” which dives into the mind of a young black boy at an all-white school and surfaces with arguably the best analysis of America’s subliminal racism on record.
“There’s a lot of real issues on the album. It’s not one of those albums where it’s like, ‘This one’s for the ladies; this one’s for the fellas.’ It’s all songs that’s supposed to touch you and inspire you differently based on how you feel—because you feel differently every day,” Wale says. “I didn’t want to touch on anything personal until the album, because that’s what an album is supposed to be: Who are you? Why should we care?”
And after the album is heard, after Wale tweets his personality over beats, what then?
“I’m just gonna keep working,” he shrugs, pen in hand. “I don’t really have a plan; I’m just gonna keep going hard.”
Photo courtesy of Universal