It was supposed to feel different this time for Wale.
The most successful rapper ever to call Washington home scored his first No. 1 album with 2013's "The Gifted," his thoughtful third record bolstered by the radio hit "Bad." That same year, to the delight of many longtime fans, the 30-year-old MC announced he was already planning the follow-up, "The Album About Nothing," the second "Seinfeld"-inspired project of his career. As if music was not enough, Wale — a sports fanatic — was named a "creative liaison" for the Washington Wizards.
The news reads like it's a good time to be Wale, but during a frank phone conversation last week, the rapper — who headlines Baltimore Soundstage on Friday — sounded defeated, unhappy and uncertain about his future in music.
"I'm already looking for other avenues and things to do," Wale said from his tour bus while traveling through Florida. "This music [expletive] isn't really fun no more. It's not fun going everywhere and everybody saying, 'You're so underrated!'"
After aligning with Rick Ross and his Maybach Music Group clique, after a Grammy nomination in 2013 and after a No. 1 album, it is worth asking: How did Wale get here?
By nearly every metric — from album sales, radio play, awards, social-media presence and peer respect — Wale is doing better than many of his contemporaries. But he's also keenly aware, and bothered by the fact, that many rap fans don't include him in the top tier of his peers. As a writer, Wale is respected, but not revered like Kendrick Lamar and Drake, and he has never understood why.
"[The lyrical content] is abundantly there, but they'll be like, 'Aww naw,'" Wale said. "And then Kendrick will write the same thing in another way and they'll say, 'This is the greatest ever.' ... We're all telling our stories in different ways. But soon enough, I'm going to let them have it and not do it no more."
It is odd to hear an artist contemplate the end of his career less than two months before his fourth album is scheduled to drop, but Wale has ignored convention throughout his nearly decade-long career.
Born Olubowale Victor Akintimehin in northwest D.C., Wale scored his first local hit in 2006 with the go-go-influenced "Dig Dug (Shake It)." He helped set trends early on, rapping over dance music (most famously, Justice's "D.A.N.C.E.") before the EDM explosion, and featuring Lady Gaga on a single before her superstardom.
Always outspoken, Wale became a polarizing rap figure in 2011 when he signed with Maybach Music Group, the label headed by Ross and associated with tough talk and over-the-top luxury. Since then, Wale has been dogged by claims that he switched his style in exchange for fame. He has always denied this, but now wonders if the redundant conversation is even worth having.
"To go super hard in the studio, writing songs four or five times, just for people to be like, 'Oh, you've changed since you were with MMG' — like what? I got better? Got smarter? Got wiser?" Wale said before referencing lyrically dense recent songs like "Black Heroes" and "Vanity." "All right, well, it's not going to be healthy for me to continue to do this."
But what if "The Album About Nothing," scheduled for release on March 31, finally earns Wale the recognition he believes he deserves? Even that possibility fails to move him.
"Everybody who has heard it is like, 'This is going to be it.' Whatever, at this point. Y'all don't appreciate nothing," he said. "I've been your whipping boy for the past four, five years. ... I wouldn't wish this [expletive] on my worst enemy."
Dish Baltimore Newsletter
Get the scoop on that new restaurant, learn about chef changes and discover your favorite new recipe. All your Baltimore food news is here.
Topics like Seinfeld and sports (Wale, a D.C. diehard, jokingly said he would hang up if asked any Ravens questions) momentarily lift Wale's spirits, but on this day, he mostly wonders aloud how much longer he will rap. When asked if this is his last album, Wale avoided a definitive answer, but questioned the point of it all.
"I don't know. If y'all don't appreciate me, then why stay?" he asked. "I leave it all on the stage. I leave it all in the booth. And I understand I've got some fans out there, but at the end of the day, I've been around these people that are the so-called great ones. It's no difference."
The conversation could have been a fleeting moment of insecurity or an indication of a talented rapper's pending retirement, but either way, Wale remains an artist unafraid of transparency. He's been honest and true to himself, and that might be rewarding enough.