Neighborhood Hero
Fifteen years in any profession would make an average person jaded, but not Wale. These days, there’s no time for the negativity to seep in. He’s focused on the bigger picture.
Interview: Robby Seabrook III
Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in the Fall 2021 issue of XXL Magazine, on stands now.

Wale prides himself on the art of consistency. It’s his biggest contribution to hip-hop. After his rap career first took off in 2006, the rapper has always put his hometown of Washington, D.C.—and its surrounding areas—first, folding the region into his music and never leaving it behind. While D.C. was mostly known as a go-go band town, Wale flipped that sound into hip-hop, and took it to the top, growing into a successful rapper with six albums (two Billboard No. 1s), four EPs, a bunch of mixtapes and plenty of bangers.

Over the past 15 years, Wale, born Olubowale Victor Akintimehin, has dealt with the ups and downs of the music industry. From changing labels and managers to public dust-ups with publications and peers to venting on social media, the MC has done so while also trying to find his footing within the rap scene. The self-proclaimed G.O.A.T. is always one to speak his mind. He’s honed that disposition into a wisdom of sorts, sharing it within his lyrics, most recently showcased on his June 2020 EP release, The Imperfect Storm, and his newest LP, Folarin 2, set to drop this fall. On the album, Wale uses samples that draw from the songs of his childhood, long before he became a late 2000’s rap darling. The project serves as a sequel to Wale’s well-received 2012 mixtape, Folarin, a feature-heavy romp through the mind of the lyricist that includes the hit song “Bad.”

Now, at 37, and more comfortable in his own skin, the Warner Records artist is both laid-back and alert, aware of where he stands in the game and how important it is to stay engaged as an artist. He’s also expanding his horizons with an acting role in the action-thriller Ambulance, out next year.

Talking with XXL via Zoom on a late August afternoon, Wale shares his feelings on making music that truly resonates, the reason he skipped courtside seats at the NBA Finals this year, how he deals with his own celebrity status, the bright side of being yelled at by director Michael Bay and why he’s one of the G.O.A.T.s.

XXL: How do you see your contributions to the Washington, D.C. and DMV rap scene?

Wale: I don’t know if the first person to do anything really gets like, the whole shebang. And now the kids, they don’t even know what it was like to not have nobody from home. I have a big ol’ picture of me performing in the White House in my mother’s living room. That’s saying something, doing the State of the Union.

I just try to take those and run with those and be grateful for that. And you know, when it’s all said and done, I can look back and be like, Man, the nation’s capital, the first rapper to do it like this. I’m just grateful for that.

You dropped your EP, The Imperfect Storm, last June, during a lot of social turmoil, and the songs reflected that. Were those just things you wanted to address?

I ain’t going to hold you, I literally went to a protest or rally or something every single day and I would go to the studio right after. I seen a 15-year-old girl get maced. I seen them break open the CVS and take all the pills out of there. I just went back and just wrote.

It was very important, even the mixing isn’t the greatest on there because I was like, Yo, I don’t care, just put it out. I don’t want to wait. I’m not sitting on this… It was just like a checkpoint of where I was at the time.

Your Folarin 2 album is the sequel to your 2012 mixtape, Folarin. Why did you want to release the follow-up now?

My daughter is talking to her mother one time and she was like, “Respect the kids. Respect the kids.” They were playing, but she was being serious and that’s part of it. The inner child of me, you know, “Still Tippin’,” “Vivrant Thing,” “I Need a Girl,” all these samples are coming from back in the day when I was a kid. I’m sampling way more than normal, so, it feels like a mixtape. I’m giving people their flowers and I’m getting mine.

One of the singles for Folarin 2 is “Angles” featuring Chris Brown, which samples Diddy’s “I Need A Girl (Pt. 1).” You’ve been successful with songs that have R&B singers. Why do you think you have the touch in this sense?

They won’t let me do nothing else. The label be like, “If this works, then it works.” If I had it my way, I wouldn’t go with those first. The game is the game. I think it’s the passion for storytelling. I care to tell stories. I care about the use of the words that I choose. It resonates on those R&B records, I guess.

What kind of different records would you want to release instead?

I’m grateful for “On Chill” and the success of it. In the alternate universe, I would want “Sue Me” to be the first single on the last project. Would it have been successful as “On Chill”? Most likely not. [The song] is double-platinum, almost triple, but the artist part of me is like, Yo, let’s just put a big-ass fuckin’ budget behind “Sue Me.” But the game don’t work like that for me. I’m grateful nonetheless.

Your song “Down South” is strong and pays homage to Mike Jones’ famed “Still Tippin’” record and the Houston rap scene in general. What’s your connection to Houston?

I was with Bun [B] last night, actually. We were at this little private party. They had a drummer and he was in that joint rapping. Bun was one of the first big rappers to really embrace me like, with “Back in the GoGo” and all that. He was always kind of a mentor to me. I don’t know if a lot of people know that. Bun always had my back.

Man, you know, Mike Jones. Mike Jones was big bro. Scarface and all that. It’s a certain relationship with Houston and D.C. Even with Steve Francis playing for the [Houston] Rockets. Scarface used to play the bass with Backyard Band. He would play with them every time he was in town.

On that same track, you rap about staying true to yourself and your artistry. How have you managed to do that so far?

I feel like in the industry it’s easy to be like, Bruh, I’m just going to do whatever. You have to understand, signing to MMG, [Rick] Ross and Meek [Mill] got their own interests. It’s easy to be like, Man, I’ma just do what they do. I’m like, “Bro, I’m gonna go to Wrestlemania, y’all go car shopping and do whatever you want to do. I’ma go here. I’ll get with y’all in the studio.” And that’s what makes me, me. Actually, it’s almost crazy when you look at it.

It was Money In the Bank, that’s a WWE pay-per-view. And there was the NBA Finals. I was supposed to go courtside. I was like, Man, I’m in Vegas, bro. I’ma just do Money In the Bank. And niggas was like, “Yo, you ain’t going to go to the NBA Finals?” I was like, “I don’t feel like getting on a plane.” I just be doing what I want, even if it don’t make any sense. I just kinda stay true to myself. Like, whatever feels right, you know what I’m sayin’?

You took the picture with Rick Ross recently. How have you guys been doing?

I played Ross the album. We kicked it. We talked. It was really on some chill, it wasn’t nothin’ crazy, you know what I’m sayin’? We talk like family most of the time. He just came by and just kicked it, listened to the album and shit.

As your career has gone on, do you feel like you’ve gotten better at accepting your celebrity status and level of popularity?

I still cringe when I’m on the street. Like, I’m walking down the street and somebody says, “Yo, Wale!” I have this weird relationship with celebrity and fame. I don’t want to answer this and not sound grateful for all the blessings. I do wish I can turn it on and off. You can’t turn this shit off.

I needed to get a shape-up last night. I was like, Damn. My barber was out of town. And, I can’t just go in one of these barber shops and get a regular joint without having to have “Who’s your favorite rapper?” conversations.

With Twitter and social media, you kind of took a step back as opposed to getting into scrums. How did you get to that point?

I be tired. Y’all don’t like me, OK, man, give it a rest, bro, who cares? Like what you like, bro, and get on, you know what I’m sayin’? Nigga be tired of arguing with y’all niggas. OK, I’m trash. Your music opinion is not good. Bye. Go back to work.

That’s a great perspective because the thing about it is—not just Twitter and social media, but period—it opens the floodgates for everyone to talk to everyone and you can kind of just say anything.

Bro, someone said this the other day and it blew my mind. They was like, “There is no way that God made us to know this many people and know what everybody is thinking.” What! That shit blew my mind. There’s no way. In the ’50s, them niggas knew like, maybe 20 people and probably knew what three of them was thinking. Why do I know what Westside Gunn and Dua Lipa are thinking in the same day? What the fuck?

You tweeted about seeing yourself as the G.O.A.T. this year, but you’ve nearly always felt that way.

I don’t say it a lot. I say it in my music a lot. I don’t really be like, “Yo, this is what it is.” Every once in a while, when God wakes me up on the left side of the bed, I be like, “Yo, you know what? Listen. Understand, it’s called catalog. It’s called consistency. It’s called no breaks. It’s called great skin, handsome as I ever been. Making great music. All genres. Aunties, sisters, mothers, all of them, they are all checking in. It’s called fashion. All of that. We did it.” Sometimes you got to remind people ’cause it’s so busy right now.

You posted the text message about Ambulance, the Michael Bay feature film you’re going to be in. What can you share about that experience?

I got three calls today ’cause they said that I came off really good in the movie. It’s like learning how to bike and then the next day, they put you in the Daytona 500 to drive a fucking car. It’s literally learning how to be on a Big Wheel and then the next day it’s like, “Now drive a car!” [Director] Michael Bay, he’s one of one. Luckily, I’ve played for some pretty intense football coaches and track coaches. My skin is thick for stuff like that, but he knows what he wants and he’s going to get it.

I’m just really, really, really blessed to be able to work with Yahya [Abdul-Mateen II] and Jake Gyllenhaal. These actors know how to talk to niggas. Michael will spazz on everybody and my energy is off, and Yahya just gives me this look like, “You got it, bro. C’mon, nigga, let’s do it.” I’m like, “Yeah, I’m chillin’. I’m good, I’m good.” And Jake will do the same thing. ’Cause, you know, it was mad COVID restrictions. So, I’m tired as hell in the car and Jake is like, “Yo, I got these vegan cookies, bro, do you want some?” Everybody was just so fucking nice. It balanced it out.

But Michael Bay, he’s good. Even when we were done he was like, “Bro, I was just trying to get the best out of you. I was trying different stuff. It was just my way,” blah, blah blah. It was a good experience. But I’m just saying, as my first major movie with Michael Bay screaming at everybody, it was intense. It was definitely intense.

What was it that initially drew you into wanting to act?

Everybody was like, “Man, you should act.” I guess it’s just like, Damn, man, I need something else to do. I can’t try out for the NFL no more. They will fold me in half running with them young niggas. I ain’t gon’ hold you, 10 years ago with this confidence, I would’ve been like, “[J.] Cole, you doing basketball? Let me play football. Hey, Washington football team, listen, give me like, two carries, man.”

wale photo dusty kessler
Dusty Kessler

See Photos of Wale

Check out more from XXL magazine's Fall 2021 issue when it hits newsstands in October 2021, including our cover story with Tyler, The CreatorLil Nas X's battle for respect in hip-hop, find out more about Maxo Kream in Doin' Lines, Bia reflects on how far she's come in her career after "Whole Lotta Money" success and more.

See Exclusive Photos From Tyler, The Creator's Fall 2021 XXL Magazine Cover Story Shoot

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