I Am Wale: Learning to Live Without Recognition
I stare at my canvas, a blank document, running my fingers across the letters like keys on a piano. The familiar feeling of anxiety greets me. He’s the ghost that haunts my writing, a constant reminder that banal words and stale sentences are unacceptable. I felt this strain before DJBooth, before RefinedHype, back when I was writing rap reviews for a rock website. Even back then I wanted my name to be synonymous with great writing more than anything. I wanted to be remembered for being someone that brought something memorable with each article. With each release I thought Complex would hunt me down, shower me with praise and a job. They didn’t. Where was Fader? Where was The Source? I was Kanye on "Touch The Sky," dealing with an internal crisis, wondering damn, these writers really that much better than me?
Bukowski once said, “Baby I’m a genius but nobody knows it but me,” summing up the feelings of every creative person to ever live. I’ve never met an artist that didn’t see his expression as something God given, something meant to be shared and acknowledged by the world. Everyone from trap rappers to acrylic painters want to be recognized, want to be adored for their craft, but few will openly admit this natural emotion. I care too much, a confession that I wouldn’t share with a preacher or Pope. Stop bitching, stop moaning, is what they would say. Yelling how great and talented you are will only attract a mob holding up “be humble” and “be patient” banners, and those will be the nice banners. Your confidence, this seemingly uncontrollable passion to get your work out into the world, will be perceived as egotistical and arrogant, you'll be labeled as conceited. You will be labeled as Wale.
Lil Wayne on the "Nike Boots (Remix)" was my introduction to Wale. That’s back when a new Wayne feature was hitting blogs every week, a voracious streak of verses, but I was stuck on this one specifically. Even though Wayne’s heads and tails double entendre is immaculate, it was Wale’s wordplay that really caught my attention. You can tell when rappers care about each bar, making sure each line hits listeners like a locomotive. I can imagine him sitting down filling notebooks full of lyrics. Writing is an art, and that song introduced an emcee that cared about what he was saying.
Lyricism isn’t the only thing Wale cared about. As the years have flipped by it's become inescapably clear that he also wants everything that the best deserves: accolades on accolades, platinum plaques, 5 mics in The Source, the top of every list, universal respect from critics, peers and the people in general. I never thought Wale was the best rapper, but he was one of the most passionate. He has the competitive spirit of a gladiator. The same publications I hoped would some day hire me to write for them were the same publications he wanted to deem him elite after every album.
“I was depressed not being where I wanna be in my career when I’ve put the work in. I wasn’t sleeping. I was drinking all day and didn’t have anyone to go to. I couldn’t fight it.” - Wale, Billboard interview
It wasn’t until I read his interview with Billboard that I realized Wale is simply Kanye without the critical acclaim. Not neccesarily in the sense of talent, but desire. What kind of monster would Ye be if College Dropout and Late Registration weren’t successful? If the pink Polo and soul samples fell to deaf ears and he got dropped from The Roc, where would Ye be? Kanye needs the recognition, the applause, in some ways he even needs the hate; it feeds that creative beast that needs an outlet. And now that he's largely conquered music, Kanye now seems intent on prying some respect out of the fashion world's hands; any world not recognizing his greatness is the world he most wants recognition from. Shades of Wale at every turn.
I now realize how much of Wale is in me, if we're honest how much of Wale is in all of us. We can call him a prick, egotistical, but ultimately he wants what we all want, to be recognized. There was a time when I was releasing articles that I felt deserved millions of views. Anything less, I completely failed. I would be up from sunrise to sunset writing, believing I had something the world needed to read. I needed to believe in myself that strongly to even create in the first place, but that also meant a life of regular disappointment when reality fell short of my own expectations.
Success is a rare word that’s uniquely defined. To some it’s simply happiness (another word not easily defined). To others it’s some sort of grand achievement, a GRAMMY award or a college diploma. Every person has their own vision, and I find myself wondering how Wale defines success. In a way he seems completely dissatisfied by his current accomplishments. But as far as rappers go, he’s in position other artist coming up would give anything for. Loyal fans, prosperous tours, turning a mixtape series into a studio album with Jerry Seinfeld, what else could you seek to achieve? He still wants more though. Our minds create these elaborate scenarios, we believe wholeheartedly that the outcome will resemble this image. When it doesn’t, the spirit is crushed. There’s no pity party you can throw that will alleviate the disappointment. It’s like suffocating under the weight of your own supersized ambitions.
Wale is one of the most openly vulnerable artists in hip-hop. It’s not just the music; on social media and interviews he shows a side of himself that most would keep private. He walks through the world stark naked, bearing his soul, and the hecklers continue to chew into him. He said that the outside world has always meant the most to him. He values the opinions of others, ironically he wants to please the people, which makes him a huge target for shade throwing. He’s constantly at war with the jokes. TAAN going number one or the Toronto TV announcer calling him “No Drake” - which does he care about more? For Wale, it’s deeper than just making an album better than the last, it's about overcoming the memes and jokes and slights. To an extent, that resonates with me. There’s some people that will only see me as the writer that Kid Cudi called a “sideline nigga,” someone whose words don’t hold weight anywhere on this planet. I might never write an article that will make some readers see past how much they hated me for that Illmatic piece.
What, exactly, do you want Wale? And then what would happen if you ever obtained it? The fans are supporting, the critics are raving, yet he’s still not pleased. It’s like he has this elusive goal that’s completely unreachable, or maybe he’s disappointed that he's reached his goals and still feels the same void. Success is looked upon as a finish line, but life continues once you reach it. Nothing ever finishes. I wanted to be a paid writer, and I’ve been that for the last four months. It’s been great, it’s been stressful, it's been confusing. The celebratory phase has ended and I don’t know what’s next. Would being my favorite rapper's favorite writer give me new found fulfillment? Getting a book deal? I've already learned that I can be crowned the greatest of all-time today and beheaded tomorrow.
During these moments of absolute confusion, I think about David Carr, a journalist from the New York Times that recently passed away. After a long battle with cancer he collapsed in the New York Times office. Something about him being at work the day he died that astounds me. He was a writer until his very last breath. Death is the finish line. Success is spending your life doing something you love. I’m trying to learn that I'm already successful.
@Wale thank you, and I wish you the same on your journey. Try and enjoy the ride to the destination. Much respect.— Jean-Michel Yoh (@Yoh31) April 11, 2015
@Wale all we can do is take it one day at a time. Deep down, I believe everything works itself out.— Jean-Michel Yoh (@Yoh31) April 11, 2015
* Art by psimdope
[By Yoh, aka The Writer of Nothing, by @Yoh31]