A Man Of All Trades: A Conversation With Wale

By - November 11th, 2009

A Man Of All Trades: A Conversation With Wale

Washington D.C. native Wale, born Olubowale Victor Folarin, has a lot on his lightning-quick mind lately. Attention Deficit, his debut album, just dropped on November 10th, and expectations are high. He’s among the new breed of artists whose careers are both augmented and tarnished by internet hype, and he is among the few who are looking to inject some excitement to what many feel has become a suffocated, copycat form of expression. In an article from the October 26th issue of the New Yorker, the in-house pop music critic Sasha Frere-Jones tackled the question “Is Hip-Hop Dead?” that has been percolating through blogs, street corners, bars, and record label offices for years. Frere-Jones’ answer is neither a firm “Yes” nor “No,” but he does suggest that a trend in the genre points towards a definitive shift to a more static electronic thump in lieu of the swing that once typified the art form. Wale has been on the rap radar for a few years, partly because he brings that bluesy, soulful swing to the mic by deftly weaving intricate rhyme patterns and nimbly mixing genres and influences while staying true to a sound that defies rote categorization. On an album that’s part D.C. go-go, part R&B, part greasy funk, and part post-pop, he maintains a sound that is unmistakably hip-hop.

Before his national introduction to music fans in 2007, Wale got regular spins on Washington D.C. airwaves with his go-go infused “Dig Dug (Shake It).” A year later, Nick Catchdubs, co-founder of Fools Gold Records, collaborated with Mr. Folarin on a mixtape called “100 Miles & Runnin,'” which showcased his ability to rhyme over a variety of tempos and styles of music: from Camp Lo’s “Glo” to Justice’s “D.A.N.C.E.” to Lily Allen’s “Smile,” he showcased his unique cadence and energetic wordplay with an unmistakable bravado. Mark Ronson, who executive produced Attention Deficit, signed Wale in early 2007 to Allido records, and the duo has been making waves ever since.

While grabbing a microphone and moving a crowd is the foundation of hip-hop music, today’s artists, especially those who are unproven, are expected to do much more than rhyme. With the substantial decline in record sales in the past five years or so, record companies have looked for artists who have branding potential, not just those who may move units in Best Buy and on iTunes. Wale fits this requirement, as he is not just a hip-hop artist, but also an influential person in the ever-crowded world of street fashion as well. Wale makes frequent reference on his songs to his rare Nikes and smaller, niche-based clothing labels like The Hundreds. On sneaker and lifestyle blogs, Wale is a regular topic of discussion—his kicks and t-shirts are just as important to some in the online community as his music.

It’s no secret that today’s new recording artists are in a sort of e-paradox—on the one hand, their constant exposure through blogs and Tweets stamps their music and image onto the screens of innumerable prospective customers, while on the other hand, the next-big-thing leaves that star-to-be open to loads of unsolicited (and usually unedited) scrutiny. After all, Wale isn’t the only new hip-hop act that has high expectations, and fans become divided as to whose records they will spend money on. Some would argue that during the two years since he signed his deal with Allido, he’s become old news already—even before releasing his first album. The debut album is in no sense a true debut, as he’s released seven mixtapes since 2005, some of which have had original productions made for the compilations just like a traditional album would.

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