Wale is sitting quietly at a table in ESPN Zone, a grotesque Times Square tourist-trap restaurant. Dressed in black jeans and a T-shirt, with his trademark fitted Washington Nationals cap, he nods his head nervously. Servers gawk at the rapper, nearly tipping over plates of soggy Buffalo wings as they pass by, but dejection covers his face. "Look at this, it's on the blogs already," he says.
Furiously flicking the rolling ball on his BlackBerry, the man born Olubowale Victor Folarin is having a moment of fame, but he can't enjoy it. He says he hasn't earned it. Yesterday, he was photographed in Central Park with Solange Knowles, Beyoncé's younger sister, and R&B gossip blog Concrete Loop is implying a relationship that he claims doesn't exist. The texts start tumbling in: "You hittin' that?" For any number of emerging young MCs, being linked to a Knowles sister would be a boon. For Wale, it's a bumout.
"I'm insecure about things," he says later that night at a tiny hidden salon on Manhattan's west side, as a hairdresser pulls and ties his plaits into place. "I'm not afraid to say it, though. Even when my publicist is like, 'Go on the red carpet,' I don't wanna go. It's not time. I'm not known yet."
This is not how rappers are supposed to talk. Not rappers with a Lady Gaga cameo on theirdebut single, co-signs from Mark Ronson and Jay-Z, and a gig fronting the house band at MTV's Video Music Awards. But Wale, a native of Washington, D.C., has no rapper affect. He travels with no entourage, save for Tre, his friend and hypeman, who's also the lead singer of D.C. go-go luminaries UnCalled 4 Band (UCB). He almost never uses hyperbole or beats his chest. And he stays in contact with fans (and his own neuroses) via a doggedly maintained Twitter account (@wale, FYI). As rap megastardom wanes, major artists still cling to their outsize personas. Jay-Z, Kanye West, and Lil Wayne project untouchable, walled-in visions of fame. Yet Wale is uniquely available. Perhaps too available. How can you be untouchable when you're so in touch?
"Sometimes I'm happy -- you can tell via Twitter. Sometimes I'm pissed off -- you can tell via Twitter," he says. "I just think, at the end of the day, I don't want them to see me as a celebrity; I just want them to see me and say, 'He's like a regular person at his job right now who's mad.'"
Read the entire Wale interview in the Nov. 2009 issue of SPIN, on newsstands now.