TOPICAL SOLUTION Wale’s references are not exactly what 17-year-old snap music fans are hankering to hear.
In an era when the major labels ignore just about everybody without a nickname that rhymes with “sleazy,” it was no small feat for Wale to land a deal with Interscope Records earlier this year. The Washington DC rapper — yet another participant in this Saturday’s massive Rock the Bells concert — is blessed with an agile flow and a penchant for trendy subject matter, but he still had to rely on some influential friends. Namely, New York DJs Mark Ronson and Nick Barat, who recorded him and introduced his work to bloggers who went absolutely gaga over his stuff and helped produce the requisite hype for a deal. One should probably throw in Justice and Lily Allen, whom Wale rapped over on his 2007 mixtape 100 Miles & Running, cementing his status as an indie-rocker’s indie-rapper.
Oh, and Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who gives him this shout-out on his recent The Mixtape About Nothing: “I’m here on this mixtape to tell you that he’s awesome . . . and don’t you think my kids are going to think I’m so cool I’m on this mixtape, motherfucker!? Word up.” (Yes, it really is her.)
Wale’s star has ascended to the point where he now keeps the company of people like Jay-Z and the Roots’ Black Thought — both of whom regularly give the 23-year-old emcee advice — as well as UGK rapper Bun B, whom Wale says he talks to every day. “A lot of times I’ll be like, ‘Am I doing this right? Should I feel like this? ’” he says of their conversations. “There was a situation where something leaked on the Internet that was taken from the studio. I didn’t want it out, because I was going to change it. I called him, and he already knew why I was calling, and he knew what to say.”
Despite his greenhorn status in the industry (or perhaps because of it), Wale doesn’t seem concerned that the major-label system seems to be imploding. “I’m comfortable where I’m at. The label I’m on is synonymous with success. You put out good music and you become successful.”
Such apparent naïveté is a surprise, considering that Wale’s lyrical references (poverty in the inner city, Saved By the Bell, his unheralded-for-rap hometown of DC) are not exactly what 17-year-old snap-music fans are hankering to hear. But though he doesn’t expect to win over the Soulja Boy demographic, he insists the two rappers have used approximately the same game plan up to this point. “He kind of revolutionized one of the ways to get on, because the days of walking into a record label and giving them your demo, those have been over for about six years. Now, it’s like: ‘Get your own buzz. Get your own thing rockin’, maybe do some YouTubes. Prove yourself like that.’ ”
Currently working on a song called “Special Ed” (or, possibly, “The Shortbus”), Wale says his debut album will likely feature entirely new songs and is due out in early 2009. One suspects it will also be pounced on by rap bloggers starved for anyone who doesn’t rap exclusively about rims. Wale acknowledges his unorthodox appeal, but says he doesn’t put on airs. “I feel like there’s a lot of redundancy in music, but I’m not trying to be different. It just so happens that I do it different.”
Much of the fun will be watching his evolution over the next year, to see if he can remain fresh-sounding despite working inside the major-label system. Here’s hoping he remains naïve enough to believe he can succeed by embracing his own quirks – and that he’s right.
WALE at Rock the Bells | Comcast Center, 885 South Main Street, Mansfield | July 26 | 12 pm | livenation.com