25 in 2009: Wale

Born: 09/21/84 In: Washington, D.C. Is: Musician

On a recent afternoon at Mark Ronson's SoHo studio, Olubowale Victor Akintimehin looks almost at ease. Swathed in a black hoodie, skinny dark jeans and a pair of colorful Air Jordans, the D.C.-area-based rapper better known as Wale (sounds like Kanye) is listening to a near-finished cut of his long-awaited debut album, Attention:Deficit, about which he is both palpably excited and anxious. "If you're not capable of having goosebumps, you shouldn't listen to this shit," he cautions. One gets the sense he's warning himself as well as prospective listeners. Later, when someone in the room insists that a line in one song -- "I wouldn't wish fame on my worst enemy" -- might go over listeners' heads, Wale responds: "No one's gonna get that, but it's gotta stay in."

It can be easy to go over people's heads when your raps are some of the most playfully sophisticated in the industry -- and when the industry itself is often fodder for your lyrics. But Wale is by turns fearless and thoughtful. "I think I'm one of the best rappers out, period," he says. "Now I'm just trying to connect to the people." Since lighting up blogs in 2007 with Ronson-anointed raps on top of songs by Justice, Lily Allen and Amy Winehouse, Wale's sprint into the stratosphere has included not only a much-acclaimed mixtape (based on Seinfeld, no less), a major-label signing and a hot single with Lady Gaga, but it has also required the constant push of a publicity campaign mostly run by the rapper himself. From his omnipresent BlackBerry, Wale updates Twitter thirty times a day to dispense fantasy football advice, gab about food and sneakers, network with producers and gripe about haters. He texts Jay-Z for tips, but unlike fellow freshmen Kid Cudi and Drake, Wale is working the crowd mostly on his own, one fan at a time. "I don't necessarily have a Kanye or a [Lil] Wayne walking me in the gate," he says.

Born and raised in D.C. -- a place known more for go-go music than hip-hop -- Wale is used to playing the underdog. His Nigerian parents (the kind that "wanted their kids to be accountants or doctors") sent Wale to six different high-schools for disciplinary reasons and turned the other cheek as he played Division-I football in college. Despite problems with coaches, Wale's athletic years taught him self-discipline, and perhaps fed an obsessive determination to prove himself in a world of naysayers and the quick celebrity of "ringtone rappers." "I used to go on [Web] forums to defend myself," he says, while tapping something into his phone, which feeds the demands of his rowdy attention span (he's been diagnosed with ADD) and his occasionally fragile ego -- what other rapper would fret, on record, about a fan un-following him on Twitter? "You're reading comments and you're like, 'Fuck, what am I doing wrong?' he says. "But when you go to [perform at] clubs, it's like a different extreme."

If being the most wired rapper (in both senses of the word) has turned Wale into a neurotic, it has also resulted in his being hip-hop's hungriest mind and most incisive tongue. The forthcoming album, produced by TV on the Radio's Dave Sitek, is a stunning showcase of Wale's lyrical and emotional range. But in Ronson's studio, Wale is still anxious, dogged less by a rough industry than by the pressures within: "I don't want to become comfortable with the position I'm in," he says. "I have so, so, so far to go before I can start acting like I've done anything."
Alex Pasternack

Wears: a blazer and shirt by Michael Bastian. opposite page; jacket by Calvin Klein, hat by Leaders, tie by Armarichi at By Robert James

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