Jay-Z didn’t say as much, but he did sign Wale to a management deal through his Roc Nation imprint.
The Internet grind also gave Wale the grassroots platform that D.C. hadn’t been offering. As his profile rose nationally, Washington slowly embraced him from the outside in. The attention he brought helped spark a minor hip-hop renaissance, inspiring many locals to pick up the mic while giving longtime veterans a new national selling point hinged around the slightly contrived “DMV Movement,” which grouped together MCs from D.C., Maryland, and Virginia. At the same time, Wale became a de facto ambassador for go-go, raising its long-suffering national profile by touring heavily with the go-go band UCB and rhyming to the go-go/hip-hop fusions of local producers Best Kept Secret. (For a time, he was so inexorably linked with the genre that some onlookers mistook go-go for a mere hip-hop offshoot, like the Bay Area’s hyphy or New Orleans’ bounce.)
All of this was building toward Wale’s major-label debut, Attention Deficit, which featured production from heavyweights like The Neptunes. Its lead single, “Chillin,” even boasted an undoubtedly costly guest appearance from Lady Gaga at the height of her “Poker Face” ubiquity. Interscope’s machine had all but handed Wale stardom on a platter.
One problem: Blog buzz or not, rap stardom doesn’t usually come on a silver platter. In trying to be everything to everybody, Attention Deficit ended up alienating much of Wale’s savvy core audience. In the meantime, it failed to connect with anyone else: The album sold a dismal 30,000 units in its first week. Only the Gucci Mane-assisted street single, “Pretty Girls,” kept true to Wale’s hometown sound by lifting a huge sample from go-go legends Backyard Band and featuring that group’s singer, Weensey. It became a hit locally, but proved a little too go-go for national radio formats. “Chillin,” too, barely cracked the Billboard charts.
Among the Internet audience that had built Wale up in the first place, the flop put a “kick me” sign on the back of his letter jacket. Every time a rap blog posted a new Wale track, the comments flooded with negative remarks—reactions that arrived with a level of speed and vitriol that was impressive even by the Internet’s standards. On the popular message board Boxden.com, one thread, simply titled “Wale Is Trash,” turned into a .gif roast of epic proportions. One Photoshop collage depicted Wale jumping out of a trash can à la Oscar the Grouch; another placed his face onto the body of the Pixar character WALL-E, disposing of a copy of Attention Deficit.
To call Wale “trash” isn’t really fair. On a performance level, he’s a fairly adept MC, especially compared to the peer class of middlebrow, streetwear-inspired blog rappers with whom he’s often grouped. He has a strong, God-given rap voice, a natural intensity, and a unique style that bends the influence of his favorite rapper, The Roots’ frontman Black Thought, into swinging cadences that reflect his go-go roots. On a musical level, meanwhile, it’s hard to imagine him registering as anything worse than inoffensive. Yet there’s something deeply off-putting about Wale’s public persona.
The word “public,” of course, is essential to this diagnosis. It’s entirely possible that Olubowale Folarain, the man who plays Wale on the Internet and in rap videos, is a kind and thoughtful gentleman. That was my take when I interviewed him a few years back. But the personality on offer through the @wale Twitter feed doesn’t come across that way.
On Twitter, Wale frequently indulges a violent persecution complex, bemoaning haters and “broke niggas” and publicly hounding whoever speaks ill of him. Recently, when one follower complained aggressively about not getting a retweet, Wale eventually conceded and added, “*bloooockkk* corny and thirsty ..sad really.” He meets other negative tweets with similarly cold and cryptic snaps, like “Imma jus let everygirl who follows me make fun of u..,” and “Is that u Meg Griffin ?” He seems to be angling for playful with these exchanges, but given their frequency, it’s difficult to read them as anything other than sour grapes.
Nor are more famous targets safe from Wale’s tweet wrath. He’s raged against fellow blog rapper Kid Cudi, video model Rosa Acosta, and, mostly oddly, self-proclaimed Osama bin Laden mistress Kola Boof. (Wale and Cudi have since made up, with Cudi appearing on Ambition.) It’s hard to tell who came first—Wale the insecure, easily combustible Internet personality, or Wale the Internet punching bag. But the persistence of the former obviously only gives fuel to the latter. And, in hip-hop, one’s public face matters to how audiences consume the music. Personality is as much of a product as the art.