By Jon Wiederhorn
In past years, some critics have described Washington, D.C.-bred Wale as a backpack rapper – a term used to describe a more indie or underground rapper more concerned with delivering a message rather than the superficial elements of the genre – partially because his 2009 song "World Tour" included a included a sample of A Tribe Called Quest's "Award Tour." His fashion sense, which once included jean jackets, baggy pants and knit caps, only fortified the impression.
However, since 2011, when he signed with Rick Ross's Maybach Music Group, industry folk have discussed Wale's conversion into a flashier rapper intrigued by the trappings of fame and eager to document the party. In an interview with Yahoo Music, Wale noted with a hint of annoyance that the perception people have that Ross gave him an image overhaul is inaccurate.
"I never understood the idea that I was a 'backpack rapper,'" he said. "I think that's a lazy way that people started thinking. They like saying that because I got dreads. I look like I belong a certain place, so it's easy to put everything in a box."
Wale insisted that despite his appearance, he has always been inspired by the go-go music he grew up with in D.C.; and that everything he has done, from his first demos to his third album The Gifted (which came out June 25), has been an extension of his roots.
"My first big record was 'Dig Dug (Shake It)' [in 2006]. That ain't backpack," he asserted. "My second big record was 'Breakdown' and it was in the same lane as that. My third big record was 'Ice Cream Girl.' Those are three back-to-back-to-back club records. And that's all influenced by the D.C. go-go scene where I came from. I was making those records for that crowd, and learned everything from that scene and those performances, which is the exact opposite of a backpack setting."
Okay, we stand corrected on the backpack thing, but Wake admits he focused more intently on writing vivid lyrics since he started working on The Gifted. Yet he insists lines like "The status got me trippin'/I like my bitch but I like these bitches on my d--k be spittin'" ("The Curse of the Gifted") are a natural evolution of his writing style.
"I’m always gonna take my time writing lyrics, but on this particular one I focused a lot on the sounds and making a cohesive project and telling more of a sharper story," he said. "I didn't think about making anything more graphic or more explicit. I just wrote songs. I don't even see a difference. I see an evolution. I write better."
To pay homage to his roots, Wale teleased a risqué video for the strip-club single "Clappers." The booty-shaking clip features a twerking contest, in which guest vocalist Nicki Minaj emerges victorious, shaking her thing while spouting some foul-mouthed, perfectly-timed lyrics.
"With 'Clappers,' I wanted to be consistent with my D.C. upbringing and the go-go sound I came out of," Wale said. "I remember being in first grade when that song would be on the radio and everyone would be singing it on the school bus. It plays into the idea of The Gifted. That was one of the biggest go-go records to ever leave D.C."
Although Wale generally dislikes shooting videos, the frivolous spirit of "Clappers" was less tiresome than most. Plus, he had Minaj and Juicy J to keep him entertained. "I’ve been working with Juicy the whole time, but this is my first record with Nicki," he said. "I love her. She's like that girl that knows she's super-bad and she can get away with a lot of s***. She cracks me up and we got a great relationship. But to be honest, I'm not a big video person. It was a long shoot, but the Juice has a lot of energy so I'm not mad at that."
Thanks in part to the success of the sultry, sleazy first single and video "Bad," (featuring Tiara Thomas), which has accrued over 24 million views on YouTube, The Gifted debuted at number one on the Billboard album chart. Wale said the chart position was a career highlight, yet he celebrated in a pretty anti-climactic manner.
"That was good for me, so I went into the studio," he said. "I've become a workaholic. When the shows slow down and there's no press and I can get my time to myself in the studio with my music, I get into this zone, man. I enter this incredible space where I'm just making music. And I feel like I can work with anybody – with Elton John, with Hanson – and I can make something incredible. I just get into this space and it's like when I get my time. Those moments are few and far between, but on the special occasions where I get a little bit of time, special things happen in that studio."
Throughout his career, Wale has always expressed a keen admiration for Jerry Seinfeld, naming his fourth mixtape The Mixtape About Nothing, which sampled from the TV show "Seinfeld." His sixth mixtape, More About Nothing, came out in 2010 and incorporated more "Seinfeld" soundbites. Intrigued by his dedication to the show, Seinfeld agreed to contribute to a comedy sketch on The Gifted that appears after the track "Black Heroes."
"Yeah, so how come? Yeah, I came in to do the album," says Seinfeld, fueling the rumor that a full record, The Album About Nothing, is on the way. "I thought we were doing the album today. How come…What happened?" the comedian continues. "When are we doing that? Are we still doing that? You wanna do it. The Album About Nothing, when are we doing that? I'm here. I came here to do it. I'm ready to do it right now."
In the sketch, Wale responds, "I just wanted to see if I could get you here. I don’t really have much for you. I don’t know what to do… This is The Gifted session. This isn't Album About Nothing."
Wale said doing the sketch with Seinfeld was one of many highlights of the session. "We spent some time together in the studio and he gave me a little bit of his Jerry Seinfeld wisdom and philosophy," Wale said. "His outlook on life is just incredible to me. He told me comedy is just philosophy with sugar over it. And he dropped a couple of jewels in the studio and we just let the camera roll and we took out whatever we got."
Though he refuses to discuss any details, Wale insisted that he will follow up The Gifted with a full album featuring Seinfeld – and it will, indeed, be called The Album About Nothing.
"Yeah. I told Jerry I'm gonna keep it on the low until the specific day when we're gonna talk about it exclusively," Wale explained. "It’s gonna be a regular album just like the other mixes. I can't say how Jerry's gonna be involved. [The Album About Nothing] is gonna be well worth it. But if I talk too much about it right now, that's all people are gonna want to hear about, and The Gifted is in stores right now.
"But just know The Album About Nothing is very, very, very, very special. If you're a fan of me, if you're a fan of Seinfeld or Larry David or 'Curb [Your Enthusiasm]' – any of those things – you're gonna really, really enjoy this project. It’s very near and dear to me ... [And] it’s only right when we do the album we take it to the next level."